Big tobacco loses appeal in US$13 billion Quebec lawsuits

Several brands of Philip Morris cigarettes are displayed for a photograph in Tiskilwa. (Bloomberg pic)

LONDON: British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco were ordered to pay damages of more than C$17 billion (US$12.8 billion) after losing an appeal of class-action lawsuits filed by smokers in the Canadian province of Quebec.

The Quebec Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision with minor changes, according to a ruling released Friday.

The lawsuits were in favour of smokers seeking damages for addiction and smoking-related diseases, who argued they were never warned of the risks of smoking.

“The risks associated to tobacco use have been known in Canada for decades.

Consumers were aware and that’s why we think we shouldn’t be held responsible” said Eric Gagnon, the head of corporate and regulatory affairs for Imperial Tobacco, BAT’s Canadian unit. ‘‘Today’s judgement is disappointing.”

Gagnon told reporters outside the court in Montreal that an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was an option.

The case stems from lawsuits originally filed in 1998 and involved the first damages against the industry in Canada.

The decision comes four years after the ruling against the companies by a trial court in Quebec.

The original damages were set at about C$15.5 billion, though that has risen to more than C$17 billion with interest charges, according to estimates from the Canadian Cancer Society.

“This is a complete and resounding defeat for the tobacco industry,” said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Ottawa-based cancer group.

The industry “has engaged in decades of wrongful behaviour resulting in vast suffering, disease and death.”