Tobacco giants to contest court ruling to pay £8bn damages

The plaintiffs represented almost a million smokers

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Three major tobacco companies will appeal against a decision by a Canadian court demanding that they pay C$15.5bn (£8bn) in damages to smokers in Quebec, following a 17-year legal battle.

The plaintiffs represented almost a million smokers whose habit had led to throat cancer, lung cancer or emphysema, and who argued that the firms had failed to warn them of the health risks associated with smoking.

The decision came at the climax of two class-action lawsuits originally brought in 1998 against Imperial Tobacco Canada, owned by British American Tobacco; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, owned by Philip Morris; and Japan Tobacco’s JTI-MacDonald. The cases only went to trial in 2012. One was launched by smokers who said they had been unable to quit, the other by a group who became seriously ill as a result of smoking.

The latter, known as the Blais file, was brought by Jean-Yves Blais, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2012, aged 68. At a press conference in Montreal after Monday’s decision, his widow, Lise Blais, said: “I waited every year [for a judgment] – for 17 years. But I had the opinion we were going to win, and we did.”

Heard together, the two lawsuits comprised what was described as the biggest civil case in Canada’s history. The individual awards range from C$100,000 for any plaintiff with cancer who started smoking before January 1976, to approximately C$130 for any of the almost one million Quebec smokers who claim they were incapable of quitting.

The three firms immediately announced they would appeal against the decision, arguing that Canadians have had a “high awareness” of the health risks of smoking for several decades.

“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 Judge Brian Riordan decided that the warnings were inadequate, writing in his ruling: “The companies earned billions of dollars at the expense of the lungs, the throats and the general well-being of their customers.”

Shares in British American Tobacco closed down 2.4 per cent at 3,506p in London.