THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS -- The Dutch consumer watchdog has fined four major tobacco companies a total of more than 82 million euros (US$96 million) for distorting competition by indirectly exchanging pricing information for cigarettes and tobacco.

The fine was levied in May but only published Tuesday because three of the tobacco companies asked a court to ban publication, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets said in a statement.

The companies involved, the Dutch arms of Philip Morris, British American Tobacco International, Van Nelle Tabak Nederland and JT International Company Netherlands, have filed objections to the decision to fine them, the authority said.

According to the ruling, from July 2008 through May 2011, the tobacco companies "accepted competitively-sensitive information concerning the future resale prices of competing cigarettes, and used that information in determining their own pricing strategies,."

The Dutch authority said the case marks the first time it has imposed fines for the indirect exchange of information between competitors.

It said the companies "gained insight into each other's pricing strategies through their buyers," particularly wholesalers and retail chains.

"This is an illegal, anticompetitive practice, because it enabled the parties to co-ordinate their prices in advance with that of their competitors," the authority said.

The Dutch arm of Philip Morris said it had done nothing wrong.

"We strongly contest this allegation," the company said in a statement. "And we reiterate that our activities are compliant with the Dutch and EU competition law."

British American Tobacco also said in a statement that it complies with "all applicable laws and, as such, we strongly disagree with the ACM's conclusions."