Tobacco companies embroiled in a historic civil suit began the trial Monday by arguing that smokers who get sick or can't kick the habit have nobody to blame but themselves.
The landmark class-action case, worth up to $27 billion, got underway in a Montreal courtroom where Canada's three biggest cigarette companies squared off against a group representing 1.8 million smokers in Quebec. It is considered the biggest class-action case in Canadian history, and marks the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.
Two lawsuits are being heard together, and they involve separate groups of Quebec plaintiffs – some who have become seriously ill from smoking and others who say they are unable to quit. The plaintiffs allege Imperial Tobacco, JTI MacDonald and Rothmans Benson & Hedges did everything possible to encourage addiction.
One of the lead plaintiffs told reporters Monday during a break from the trial that she started smoking in the 1960s after being "programmed" by industry TV advertisements that made cigarettes seem cool.
"Smoking was in fashion," Cecilia Letourneau said in the corridor of the Montreal courthouse. "I chose to smoke to show that I was 'in.' "
Jean-Yves Blais, another plaintiff, said he started smoking when he was 10.
"Everyone smoked back then," Blais said. "To be like the others, I smoked. And I got hooked pretty fast."
Lawyers made their opening statements Monday, with the companies arguing that the public has known for decades that smoking can be harmful. The lawyer for Imperial Tobacco called the case an "opportunistic cash grab."
"For the last 50 years at least, the dangers associated [with] tobacco have been known," Suzanne Côté said. "People who have decided to smoke or decided to continue to smoke have to assume the consequences of their own choices."
"Just because it's a legal product doesn't absolve us of liability, but just because there's risks and dangers associated with it doesn't mean we're automatically at fault, either," said Deborah Glendinning, another lawyer representing Imperial Tobacco lawyer.
"I'm looking very forward to seeing what kind of proof they can bring," Glendinning said in the court hallway during a break in proceedings. "I don't think they've got it, and I believe we will ultimately be successful."
The Quebec civil trial promises to be drawn out. After the plaintiffs make their case, the defendants won't present their case until 2013 due to the sheer volume of evidence.
Case being watched around the world
The case is being closely watched both in Canada and abroad, said Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society.
"It's very difficult for a class action to actually get to trial against the tobacco industry. Very few in the United States or the world have actually gotten to that stage," said the lawyer said. "The tobacco industry has repeatedly tried to postpone this trial, but they have been unable to delay the inevitable forever."
On another front, six provinces are teaming up to sue Canadian tobacco firms for health-care costs.
British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island are retaining a national legal team to help them prosecute Canadian tobacco companies in hopes of recovering billions of dollars.