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Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., Imperial Tobacco Canada and JTI-Macdonald Corp. must pay damages to 100,000 Quebec smokers.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Three tobacco companies must pay billions of dollars to Quebec smokers harmed by cigarettes, according to a ruling released Friday by the Quebec Court of Appeal that upholds a lower court’s decision.

Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., Imperial Tobacco Canada and JTI-Macdonald Corp. must pay damages to 100,000 Quebec smokers who developed diseases as a result of cigarettes or who couldn’t quit smoking.

The decision upheld a 2015 ruling in a lower court that found the tobacco companies concealed the health risks of smoking from the public. At the time, Quebec Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan ordered the companies to pay $15.6-billion in damages. It’s believed the award will now total about $17-billion as a result of interest incurred, said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). In 2015, it was believed to be the biggest class-action award in Canadian history.

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Philippe Trudel, a lawyer for smokers who brought the class action, called the decision a complete victory.

“It is excellent news for victims who have been waiting for this day for a long time. We’re very happy with the result, clearly,” he said.

In a statement, JTI-Macdonald said it “fundamentally disagrees” with the judgment and will look at all options, including seeking permission to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking,” the statement said.

Rothmans, Benson & Hedges said in a statement it will seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. Peter Luongo, the company’s managing director, wrote that class-action lawsuits in Canada must prove harm to every member of the suit, something that didn’t happen in this case.

“We believe this unprecedented change in the law warrants review and reversal by the Supreme Court of Canada,” Mr. Luongo wrote.

Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada, said he was disappointed by the ruling and that the company has always followed federal laws and regulations.

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Mr. Cunningham of the CCS said the decision is historic and will have implications across the country.

“The tobacco companies engaged in decades of wrongdoing with a cover up of the health effects of smoking,” Mr. Cunningham said. “The tobacco companies should be liable for their wrongful behaviour and the courts agree.”

He said the fact that the Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision should make it more difficult for the companies to be successful in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The case should bolster the efforts of the provinces currently suing tobacco companies in a bid to recoup the costs associated with treating smoking-related diseases, Mr. Cunningham said. The first of those lawsuits is scheduled to be heard in court in New Brunswick this November. Mr. Cunningham said he hopes the Quebec appeal court decision will incentivize the provinces to push ahead, despite the delays that have dogged the cost-recovery lawsuits.

“If the tobacco companies can be liable in Quebec, they can be liable across the country for the same behaviour,” Mr. Cunningham said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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