Closing arguments in a historic class-action lawsuit against three tobacco companies began today in Quebec Superior Court.

Two groups representing a total of about one million Quebec smokers are seeking $17.8 billion from Imperial Tobacco, JTI-MacDonald, and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges.

The lawsuit originally sought $27-billion and was deemed the largest class-action case in Canadian history.

The legal proceedings began in March 2012, 13 years after the class action was initiated by two groups representing Quebec smokers.

One group involves individuals who have become seriously ill from smoking, and members of the other group say they are unable to quit smoking.

The groups allege the companies:

  • Failed to properly warn their customers about the dangers of smoking.
  • Underestimated evidence relating to the harmful effects of tobacco.
  • Engaged in unscrupulous marketing.
  • Destroyed documents.

Cecilia Letourneau, lead plaintiff for Quebecers claiming they were unable to quit smoking, accused the companies of keeping her addicted.

“What I thought was my free choice was in fact programmed by an industry that wanted to keep me captive,” she said.

Jean-Yves Blais's legacy

Jean-Yves Blais, who initiated the other lawsuit on behalf of smokers who developed serious illnesses, died in the summer of 2012 from lung cancer. He was 68.

His family said the possibility of an end to the legal saga is welcome news.

Blais died after having smoked since the 1950s and failing several times to quit. His son Martin and widow Lise attended the proceedings Monday.

Lise Blais said her husband would try to give up the habit but would invariably be lured by the towering presence of cigarettes on the shelves whenever he walked into a convenience store.

With what little energy he had left in his final days, Jean-Yves Blais remained passionate, even cocky, about the case, his son said.

"I'm sad for my father. He was killed by what he liked the most, which was smoking," said Martin Blais. "And it's sad that he died doing something he liked."

It took 14 years for the case to reach trial, with proceedings repeatedly slowed by motions and appeals by tobacco industry lawyers.

"It has been a very long road, but at the same time, that's the time it took to make the evidence in the trial and present all we had to say to the judge," said Mario Bujold, executive-director of the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health.

"It was long, it was really long for the victims. Many of them died during the trial. I think that's the saddest thing — justice takes time, but we're near the end, so we're happy about that."

Long road

There have been 90 judgments rendered in the case over the years, with 78 witnesses taking the stand in 234 days of testimony since 2012.

Bujold said the evidence suggests to his group that the companies conspired to keep mum about the health effects of tobacco use for more than 40 years.

The closing arguments are expected to last several weeks and a decision from Quebec Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan isn't expected for some time.

Conscious that more appeals are likely, Bujold said lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking for a judgment that could, in part, be applied immediately.

Some 27,000 documents were filed as exhibits, including many confidential company memos and studies that showed people didn't know or understand the health risks relating to smoking.

But the industry has argued people knew about smoking-related risks smoking and that the products were sold legally and with federal government approval.

"People knew about the health risks associated with smoking for many decades and the federal government who licensed and enabled us to sell those products knew about those health risks for many decades," said Éric Gagnon, spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada, when asked to sum up his firm's arguments.

"So we don't believe that the tobacco industry should be held responsible for personal choices that people made, knowing there were health risks associated with smoking," Gagnon said.

With additional reporting from The Canadian Press