(Reuters) - Canada's three biggest tobacco companies, all with multinational parents, face C$27 billion ($27.30 billion) in damages and penalties as the largest civil lawsuit in the country's history gets underway 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 trial, which takes place in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal.
At question 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.
More than 10,000 people die each year in the Canadian province of Quebec from causes directly linked to smoking. Quebec's annual healthcare spending on tobacco-related ailments tops C$1 billion ($1.01 billion), according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Imperial Tobacco Canada, a division of British American Tobacco, issued a statement on Monday noting that the risks of smoking have been known for years and calling the lawsuit an opportunistic cash grab".
JTI-Macdonald Corp is a division of Japan Tobacco International and Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc is a division of Philip Morris International.
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.
Separately, numerous Canadian provinces are teaming up to sue tobacco companies in hopes of recovering billions of healthcare dollars spent to treat the victims of tobacco use.