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Lung-cancer victim Jean-Yves Blais (R) waits for the start of his class-action lawsuit against Canada's three main tobacco companies in Montreal, March 12, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS/CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
Lung-cancer victim Jean-Yves Blais (R) waits for the start of his class-action lawsuit against Canada's three main tobacco companies in Montreal, March 12, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS/CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

Landmark tobacco case begins in Montreal courtroom Add to ...

A landmark tobacco case with up to $27-billion at stake started Monday in a Montreal courtroom, with Canada's three largest cigarette companies squaring off against a group of Quebec smokers.

The class-action case is considered the biggest in Canadian history.

The smokers claim in a lawsuit that they were duped for years by big tobacco companies, as they became addicted to cigarettes and then suffered from serious health problems.

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One of the lead plaintiffs told reporters Monday during a break from the trial that she started smoking in the 1960s after being “programmed” by industry TV advertisements that made cigarettes seem cool.

“Smoking was in fashion,” Cecilia Letourneau said in the corridor of the Montreal courthouse.

“I chose to smoke to show that I was ‘in'. ”

The case marks the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.

The defendants are Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald.

A lawyer representing Imperial Tobacco said Monday that with all the publicly available information on the dangers of tobacco, smokers must take responsibility for their decision to light up.

“Just because it's a legal product doesn't absolve us of liability, but just because there's risks and dangers associated with it doesn't mean we're automatically at fault, either,” Deborah Glendinning said in the hallway during the break.

“I'm looking very forward to seeing what kind of proof they can bring because I don't think they've got it and I believe we will ultimately be successful.”

In the United States, the tobacco industry has been walloped with legal bills.

It has resolved actions by the states aimed at recovering tobacco-related health-care costs under the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. That agreement, signed in 1998, calls on the companies to pay a minimum of US$206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement. In 2006, the U.S. government also won a racketeering suit against the major tobacco companies.

So far, legal battles over tobacco have made less waves in Canada.

One other civil case that has been certified stems from a 2003 filing in British Columbia, involving light and mild cigarettes. A trial date hasn't been set in that case and others filed elsewhere in Canada are nowhere near trial. The Quebec case took more than 13 years to make it before a judge after delays, motions and appeals.

Separately, provinces are also seeking the right to pursue tobacco companies to recoup health-care costs. Four provinces have filed: British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. The six others have announced their intention to file.

The Quebec civil trial won't be over for some time. After the plaintiffs make their case, the defendants won't start theirs until 2013. Eventual appeals are inevitable at the end.

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