A judge in the Canadian province of Ontario has green-lighted a $49 billion (C$50 billion) lawsuit that provincial authorities have brought against 14 tobacco companies, Reuters reported.
Ontario filed the suit in 2009 seeking to recoup the cost to taxpayers of tobacco-related illnesses treated by the state healthcare system since 1955. Canada's health system is publicly funded and free at the point of delivery but has imposed soaring financial burdens on provincial governments, taking up 40 percent of local spending in 2009 for a total cost approaching $175 billion, according to Reuters.
The companies targeted in the lawsuit are Benson & Hedges, partly owned by Philip Morris, the world's largest merchant by market share; Imperial Tobacco Canada, part of British American Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco, Reuters reported. The decision was announced by John Gerretsen, the attorney general of Ontario, Canada's most populous province, which is facing a $15.6 billion (C$16 billion) budget deficit, the largest of any province.
The lawsuit alleges that the companies knew how addictive their products were and knowingly deceived the public about their health risks. The companies have denied these claims and unsuccessfully sought to have the case thrown out on jurisdictional grounds.
The Ontario government said smoking is the leading cause of premature death in the province and costs the healthcare system $1.55 billion (C$1.6 billion) annually.
According to The Globe and Mail, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland have also sued tobacco companies.
While tobacco companies have claimed they face bankruptcy should the courts find against them, Rob Cunningham, a lawyer for the Canadian Cancer Society, was quoted by The Globe and Mail as saying the Ontario lawsuit threatened to uncover a joint conspiracy destroy research and cover-up unfavorable information.
“And also they have very deep pockets, and they are able to pay a very substantial judgment. ... The foreign parent companies have enormous capacity to pay, more than just the Canadian companies," he said.