Tobacco firms to pay billions in damages in Canada

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Lise Blais, whose husband Jean-Yves Blais, died from lung cancerImage source, AP
Image caption,
Lise Blais' husband died from lung cancer developed from smoking

A Canadian court has ordered three tobacco companies to pay C$15.5bn (£8bn; $12bn) - the largest award for damages in the country's history.

The plaintiffs were Quebec smokers who said the firms failed to warn them of health risks associated with smoking.

Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI-MacDonald vowed to appeal against the decision.

The class-action lawsuits were filed in 1998, but only recently went to trial in the courts.

The firms argued that Canadians have had a "high awareness" of smoking health risks since the 1950s.

"That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for more than 40 years," JTI-Macdonald said in a statement.

But the plaintiffs argued that the companies did not properly warn their customers and failed in their general duty "not to cause injury to another person", according to the Quebec Superior Court decision.

Tobacco firms and US courts

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Current Canadian cigarette packages have strong health warnings
  • US courts often order tobacco companies to pay large awards but, upon appeal, the headline figure is often reduced substantially - a $28 bn (£18.3 bn) against Philip Morris was reduced to $28 million on appeal in 2011.
  • American tobacco firms agreed in 1998 to pay US states over $200 bn (£131 bn) in fines in what is the largest civil litigation suit in US history. US states have been criticised for not spending enough of the compensation on anti-smoking programmes - the New York Times even reported that some of the money has gone to help tobacco farmers modernise.

They represent nearly one million smokers who were unable to quit or who suffer from throat or lung cancer, or emphysema.

Explaining his ruling, Judge Brian Riordan said: "The companies earned billions of dollars at the expense of the lungs, the throats and the general well-being of their customers.

"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?"