(Reuters) - Canada's three biggest tobacco companies, all with multinational parents, face C$27.25 billion ($27.43 billion) in damages and penalties as the largest civil lawsuit in the country's history to go to trial started on Monday.
The companies, Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp and Rothmans Benson & Hedges, are named in the class-action suit by a group of current and former smokers in the province of Quebec.
At question in the trial in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal is whether the companies adequately warned smokers of the dangers of cigarettes. It is the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.
The plaintiffs say they were hoodwinked into buying an addictive product and have since developed a range of smoking-related illnesses, including lung cancer and emphysema.
The tobacco firms say the suits amount to "an opportunistic cash grab" as the risks of smoking have been known for decades.
"Tobacco manufacturers must be held accountable for their actions, and legal proceedings provide a key opportunity to bring about a fundamental change in this industry's business practices," said the Canadian Cancer Society's Melanie Champagne.
More than 10,000 people die each year in Quebec from causes directly linked to smoking. Quebec's annual healthcare spending on tobacco-related ailments tops C$1 billion, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
The lawsuit is the first of a series of multibillion-dollar suits against Canadian tobacco companies. Provincial governments also plan huge lawsuits in hopes of recovering billions of healthcare dollars spent to treat the victims of tobacco use.
With tens of millions of pages of documents already exchanged, the Quebec trial could go on for years. The tobacco companies are not scheduled to start to present their evidence until February 2013.
"This case is not about whether smoking causes disease or whether people are addicted. The dangers of smoking have been well known for decades. As well it has been universally recognized that smoking is difficult to quit," said Imperial Tobacco Canada, a division of British American Tobacco.
"This case is about whether Imperial Tobacco Canada should be held responsible for the personal smoking decisions made by smokers, who were well informed about those risks."
The Canadian government regulates and taxes the tobacco industry, and has imposed graphic warnings on cigarette packages in recent years. Canada also restricts how tobacco is marketed and sold in an effort to dissuade consumption.
JTI-Macdonald Corp is a division of Japan Tobacco International and Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc is an affiliate of Philip Morris International.
The trial encompasses two class actions, one involving those with cancer and the other involving smokers in general.
They are Conseil québécois sur le tabac et la santé and Jean-Yves Blais v. JTI-Macdonald Corp, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. (500-06-000076-980); and Cécilia Létourneau v. JTI-Macdonald Corp, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. (500-06-000070-983).
Reporting by Julie Gordon in Toronto and Randall Palmer in Ottawa, Editing by Peter Galloway