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Canada court awards billions to Quebec smokers

A Quebec court has ordered three tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars in damages after losing a class-action lawsuit. It is thought to be the biggest class-action lawsuit award in Canadian history.

The ruling handed down by Quebec Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan late on Monday ordered that Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI-MacDonald pay $15.5 billion Canadian (11.3 billion euros, $12.4 billion US) to smokers in the Canadian province.

The award stems from two related class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of nearly 1 million Quebec smokers. One represented smokers who suffered from serious health conditions such as throat or lung cancer or emphysema. The other represented people who claimed they had become addicted and were unable to kick the habit.

The plaintiffs had argued that the tobacco companies had neglected to sufficiently warn Quebec consumers about what they knew about the risks of the habit and the Montreal court found that as a result, they had failed in their general duty "not to cause injury to another person."

"The companies earned billions of dollars at the expense of the lungs, the throats and the general well-being of their customers," Judge Riordan wrote in his ruling. "If the companies are allowed to walk away unscathed now, what would be the message to other industries that today or tomorrow find themselves in a similar moral conflict?"

The ruling was roundly applauded by the plaintiffs and anti-smoking groups.

"It's a great day for victims of tobacco who have been waiting for this moment for 17 years," Mario Bujold, director of " the Conseil québécois sur le tabac et la santé, a Quebec anti-smoking lobby group that represents the plaintiffs in the case told a Montreal press conference.

The "17 years" was a reference to 1998, the year the two separate suits were first filed. They were consolidated in 2005 and court began hearing the case in 2012.

Canadians 'knew for decades'

The three tobacco companies quickly announced that they intended to appeal the verdict, arguing that the health risks of smoking had been widely known to Canadians as early as the 1950s.

A statement released by Imperial Tobacco said that the judgment "ignores reality" and wrongly sought to "relieve adult consumers of any responsibility for their actions."

It also pointed to a 1963 Gallup poll that showed that 96 percent of Canadians were aware that smoking could lead to lung cancer.

"Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking," said a statement released by JTI-MacDonald. "That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for more than 40 years."

Monday's ruling ordered the companies to issue $1 billion Canadian in initial compensation within 60 days, regardless of whether they actually file an appeal.

pfd/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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