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Tobacco firms face all-out assault in Canadian courts

Jean-Yves Blais smokes during an interview in his St. Hubert, Que., home, March 8, 2012.

Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

Tobacco was the mark of a man in the winter of 1954, when a 10-year-old boy would dig forts in the snow in northern Quebec so he could hide out with buddies and smoke.

When Jean-Yves Blais was 14, he would strut around with a pouch of Player's tobacco in his front shirt pocket. His dad approved, and in another sign of just how acceptable it was to smoke, his mother sent him off to boarding school with a carton of rolling papers and a can of tobacco. "Nobody ever talked about it being bad for your health," Mr. Blais recalled.

It was the start of a life-long addiction that would leave Mr. Blais a lung-cancer survivor and one of the figureheads for two class-action lawsuits seeking $27-billion in damages from the three biggest tobacco companies. The lawsuits set to go to trial Monday are the first of their kind to get to that stage in Canada after nearly 13 years of legal manoeuvring.

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One of the Quebec suits seeks $10,000 in damages for each of the estimated 1.8 million people in Quebec hooked on cigarettes. The suit represented by Mr. Blais seeks $105,000 for each of the estimated 90,000 people who suffer from smoking-related diseases.

Both lawsuits name the three biggest cigarette companies, JTI-Macdonald Corp., Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., as defendants.

The companies are facing an all-out assault in Canadian courts. Another class-action lawsuit has been filed in British Columbia on behalf of smokers.

Provincial governments in British Columbia, Ontario and New Brunswick are seeking billions in damages for health costs related to smoking, mimicking cases brought by state governments in the United States in the 1990s. The tobacco companies eventually settled, agreeing to pay about $246-billion over 25 years to 46 states.

The cases involving Mr. Blais are the first to get to trial in Canada. The tobacco companies have worked hard to have the cases dismissed, with judges delivering some 50 judgments on preliminary matters. A similar effort during a class-action lawsuit failed in the early stages in Ontario in 2004. A judge ruled that the case, with millions of potential plaintiffs, was too unwieldy.

In Quebec, judges ruled the case could go ahead years ago. The positions of the plaintiffs and the defence are contained in millions of pages of documents, but can be summed up in familiar terms.

The smokers claim they were not sufficiently warned of the health risks associated with smoking, and that the tobacco companies concealed both the health dangers and highly addictive nature of cigarettes.

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The tobacco companies deny they concealed information and say the plaintiffs are applying hindsight to blame them for a "complex societal phenomenon" that has been approved and taxed by the federal government.

The potential dangers of smoking have been known since the 1960s and have long been part of the choice smokers make, the companies contend in their defence.

"Individuals have the right to make choices and engage in behaviours that expose them to risk that may entail negative consequences," one tobacco company said in a court filing.

The companies also deny that tobacco is the direct cause of emphysema, and lung, laryngeal and throat cancer.

Plowing through more than half a pack of Peter Jackson cigarettes in two hours after lunch, Mr. Blais showed the toll of his habit with a rattle in his lungs and the brown index fingernail on his right hand. In addition to his bout of lung cancer, Mr. Blais has emphysema and will undergo tests to find out if two new lumps on his lungs are cancerous.

Mr. Blais has tried to quit three times. The first was immediately after he had the lobe of his right lung removed Oct. 1, 1997. He was smoking again 19 days later. In 2008, he quit for five months with the aid of medication. His wife, Lise Boyer-Blais, and son, Martin, were shattered when he resumed again. He has no easy answer for why he finds it impossible to quit. "I guess it's just got a hold of me," he said.

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Mr. Blais, 67, said he's not out for vengeance against tobacco companies. But sitting in his home in a modest trailer park on Montreal's south shore, he said retirement has been tough and expensive. A few thousand dollars would give the couple some security and make up for lost wages over the years. He put his name to the lawsuit after being asked by the doctor who treated his cancer in 1997.

"He's among the exceptions who managed to stay alive this long," says one of Mr. Blais's lawyers, Michel Bélanger. "I sometimes wonder if this court case has kept him alive."

Mr. Blais's work life is intertwined with his smoking life. In many ways, his resumé reads like a history of the Quebec labourer in the second half of the 20th century.

He started out as a teen with a Grade 8 education in the 1950s working in the forests and mines of northern Quebec and Ontario, where he says everybody smoked. He moved to Montreal in the late 1960s and took a series of jobs in construction where, again, everybody smoked.

He helped build Montreal's subway system, the Olympic village, and spent most of the 1980s in the north boring holes in the rock for Quebec's James Bay hydroelectricity project. Kicking the cigarette habit never really occurred to him until 1991, when the work dried up on the James Bay project and he bought a taxi licence at home, on Montreal's south shore. But he never tried to quit until he was struck by cancer.

In September, 1997, he went for X-rays after suffering a pinched nerve from sitting too long in the uncomfortable seat of his taxi, a 1994 Chrysler Intrepid. The X-ray caught his tumour in the early stages, allowing a swift removal.

"The lousy seat in that Intrepid saved my life. It was pure luck," Mr. Blais said.

The case for the plaintiffs is scheduled to consume much of this year. The defence is expected to begin in February, 2013. Mr. Blais doesn't intend to follow the trial every day but he hopes to be there when a verdict is finally reached.

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