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March 11th, 2012:

C$27B tobacco lawsuit starts Monday

News Canada

C$27B tobacco lawsuit starts Monday



First posted: Sunday, March 11, 2012 06:29 PM EDT | Updated: Sunday, March 11, 2012 06:33 PM EDT

MONTREAL – Twenty-seven billion dollars is not all that Canada’s big three tobacco companies might be forced to give up if they lose a mega-trial which starts Monday morning in Montreal.

Millions of internal, once-secret documents were released by the companies to the plaintiffs.

Should the tobacco companies lose the case, the judge will likely order the documents be made public, permanently, said Bruce Johnston, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

These documents will help anti-tobacco crusaders around the world take more cigarette companies to court, Johnston told QMI Agency in an interview.

He said the documents that he’s seen from the companies being sued in the Montreal case include examples of “egregious cynicism too numerous to count.

“If you compare what (the tobacco companies) said in public to what they said in private, it will make your hair stand,” Johnston said.

Johnston works at one of four legal firms representing almost two million Quebecers in what he said is the largest civil trial in Canada’s history. Plaintiffs want $27 billion.

Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and JTI-Macdonald Corp. will have to defend themselves against accusations they conspired to prevent information about the dangers of smoking from reaching the Quebec public.

They are also accused of trivializing the risks of smoking, engaging in false marketing to fool the public about the dangers and risks of smoking, and deliberately violating the rights to life, security and integrity of Quebec citizens.

Johnston said it was the 1998 agreement that made seven cigarette companies operating in the U.S. pay out $206 billion that helped lawyers formulate a case against the Canadian big three.

Aside from the multibillion-dollar payout, the companies in the U.S. trial were forced to make public more than 35 million pages of once-secret, internal documents.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the documents released in the U.S. “richly detail how the companies denied or obscured the solid evidence of the harm environmental tobacco smoke causes — including evidence from their own laboratories.”

The WHO says that the release of documents made it possible for its 191 member states to negotiate the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which created international regulations for tobacco companies.

And it is the documents that will be released during the trial in Montreal, Johnston said, which will help future cases against tobacco companies around the world.

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society, said he agrees that the Canadian trial will encourage more lawsuits against cigarette companies.

“This trial will be watched internationally,” he told QMI Agency in an interview. “Nothing of this magnitude (has been tried) outside North America.”

The sworn testimony and the release of documents will also be of interest within Canada.

The governments of B.C., Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador are suing tobacco companies and six other provinces have announced their intention to do so, Cunningham said.

“At the end of the day, this is an extremely significant case,” he said.

Chris Koddermann, director of corporate affairs for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, told QMI Agency that it is “incorrect” to characterize his company’s internal documents as “egregious.”

“The plaintiffs’ tactics to date is to introduce fragments of tiny amounts of documents to paint a picture that is consistent with their case,” he said. “Our lawyers want to put these documents into context.”

He said that Canadians have known about the risks and dangers of smoking since the 1950s, and his company never hid the truth from anyone.

The institution that should be responsible for citizens getting sick from cigarettes is the federal government, Koddermann charged.

The Canadian government is a defendant in warranty in this case, meaning if the tobacco companies lose, they will take the government to court for the money to pay out damages to Quebecers.

JTI-Macdonald refused an interview, but wrote via e-mail that “smoking a cigarette – any cigarette – poses health risks and no one should smoke without being aware of those risks.”

The e-mail stated it would not be “appropriate” to comment further on an issue before the court.

QMI Agency was not able to reach representatives from Imperial Tobacco Canada for comment.

Koddermann said his company let Health Canada “take the lead” in informing Canadians about the risks and dangers of smoking.

“We think that’s the responsible approach,” he said.

Both sides told QMI Agency that the trial is likely to last more than a year.

It is a small amount of time compared to the almost 14 years that it took to start the trial.

Johnston and Cunningham accused the big three of postponing and delaying the start of proceedings. They said the companies are worried about what will be revealed during trial.

Koddermann rejected the claim and added that he believes the big three will win the case.

He said $27 billion is an “excessive” amount to ask of cigarette companies.

“We think the correct amount is zero,” he said.