'Big Tobacco' to pay $17B to Quebec smokers

A court ruling that ordered three tobacco companies to pay $17 billion in damages to Quebec smokers has been upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal.

Three tobacco companies, Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald and Rothmans-Benson & Hedges, had appealed a 2015 ruling that ordered them to pay smokers who became ill or were unable to quit the habit.

Phillipe Trudel is a lawyer for smokers who brought the class action. He described the court's decision as a complete victory, and excellent news for victims.

Around 76 witnesses testified at the Superior Court trial, and close to 43,000 documents were entered into evidence, which included internal company tobacco company documents that showed smokers did not know or understand the risks associated with smoking. 

The cigarette companies argued their customers understood the risks of smoking.

"JTI-Macdonald Corp. fundamentally disagrees with the Quebec Court of Appeal's judgment and is assessing the potential implications of this decision," said the company in a press release. "Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking. That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for 47 years."

While Imperial Tobacco Canada said, "we are still of the view that this decision is wrong – ignoring the reality that both adult consumers and government have known about the risk associated with smoking for decades.  As a result, we believe it should be overturned."

It added, "Given the significance of the judgment, we fully intend to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada."

The Appeal Court says the companies had orchestrated a series of misinformation campaigns which included creating a false scientific controversy.

"I am very happy with the judgment" said Lise Blais, the widow of Jean-Yves Blais, in whose name the class action was filed. He died of lung cancer in 2012, shortly after the trial began.

"I am also sad that my husband, whose life was cut short by the secrets and dishonesty of the companies, was not able to enjoy this victory. Like thousands of other victims, he did not live long enough to see the outcome of this trial," Blais added.

100,000 Quebecers who are class suit members and have been diagnosed with lung or throat cancer, or emphysema are entitled to be compensated.

"The tobacco industry has engaged in decades of wrongful behaviour resulting in vast suffering, disease and death," says Rob Cunningham, lawyer and Senior Policy Analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society. "It is a matter of justice that the tobacco industry be held to account for the devastation caused by its actions.  The unanimous judgment represents a complete and resounding defeat for the tobacco industry."

For information on compensation click here.