QUEBEC - More than half of Canadian provinces have now sued big tobacco companies in an attempt to recoup health costs, with the Quebec government announcing a $60 billion lawsuit Friday.
Six provinces have filed similar lawsuits — British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Manitoba and now Quebec — while the others have announced plans to do the same.
In the United States, such actions have been resolved with a huge out-of-court settlement — of at least US$206 billion over 25 years.
The lawsuits from provinces are separate from historic class-action lawsuits being launched by smokers and former smokers in Quebec.
Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said he wouldn't share many details of the government's case outside the courtroom, but he did say the government believes tobacco companies were not forthcoming in the past with information about the hazards of smoking.
Health Minister Yves Bolduc listed multiple types of illnesses or treatments associated with smoking — including cancer, heart disease, amputations and underweight births.
"The illnesses (associated) are our principal causes of hospitalization — and also the principal cause of illnesses that require extremely expensive treatments," Bolduc said.
"So the costs associated with these illnesses over many years has placed an extremely high financial burden on the health system."
The $60 billion figure was based on government calculations of the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses since 1970, and all the way until 2030 for current smokers.
The companies targeted are Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans-Benson & Hedges et JTI-MacDonald and a tobacco manufacturers' organization.
The tobacco industry is characterizing the provincial moves as a hypocritical cash grab. It describes governments as essentially being financial partners, given all the revenues they have raked in from the heavily-taxed industry over the years.
"Governments have licensed us, have taxed us and our consumers, and have regulated us, all in full knowledge of the risks associated with tobacco use," said Donald McCarty, a vice-president at Imperial Tobacco, in a statement Friday.
"This lawsuit is a cash grab by a provincial government looking to score political points while conveniently forgetting that it has been a senior partner in the tobacco industry for decades."
The statement said provincial governments have made more money — in taxes from tobacco companies — than the companies have made themselves.
It called the lawsuit a waste of taxpayers' money.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said there had been lawsuits from five provinces.