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A judge says he refused to let the Ontario government push forward with a lawsuit against three major tobacco companies because it would give the province an unfair advantage over other governments seeking to do the same.

Ontario last week asked a Toronto court to lift a stay on legal proceedings against the companies so that its lawsuit, which aims to recover smoking-related health-care costs, could go to trial in roughly 18 months.

The lawsuit was launched about a decade ago and targets a dozen Canadian firms and their parent companies. The province recently received court approval to amend its statement of claim to seek damages of $330-billion.

The case came to a standstill in March, however, when three of the tobacco companies named in the suit – Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Benson & Hedges – sought creditor protection as a result of a separate case in Quebec.

After the Quebec appeal court ordered them to pay more than $15-billion to smokers in that province, the companies turned to the Ontario court, which suspended all legal proceedings against them.

The stay aims to maintain the status quo while the companies try to negotiate a global settlement with all those who have claims against them, including Ontario and several other provincial governments.

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