Influencing Science: Creating Doubt About Scientific Evidence

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A class action lawsuit against Canada’s three largest tobacco companies in early 2012 brought new evidence of Imperial Tobacco Canada publicly denying the link between tobacco and cancer, and creating doubt about scientific evidence.

N.B. The three corporations brought to trial are Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI McDonald Imperial. (Imperial Tobacco Canada is a wholly-owned, indirect subsidiary of British American Tobacco). The class action is for people who have contracted cancer or emphysema as a result of smoking or are addicted to smoking. The case revolves around whether the tobacco companies met their duty to inform their customers about the dangers of smoking. As the documents quoted at the trial are not in the Tobacco Legacy Archives yet, this article is based on reports in The Montreal Gazette.

Michel Descôteaux was the first witness in the trial. He began working for Imperial Tobacco in 1963 and for the last 20 years was its only spokesperson. He retired in 2002.

In 1976, Michel Descôteaux was a young, ambitious public relations director for one of Canada’s biggest tobacco companies – Imperial Tobacco Canada. The company asked the 29-year-old to come up with some ideas to help the industry that was increasingly under fire about the damage its products caused, so, as Descôteaux put it Wednesday in Quebec Superior Court, he rolled up his sleeves and pitched an idea. His memo to Imperial’s vice-president at the time, Tony Kalhok, raises what might happen if tobacco adversaries started paying attention to the “addictiveness of smoking.”

“This could be a very serious issue if someone attacked us on this front,” he wrote in October 1976, four years into his job.1

Friendly First

Back in the 1980s, Alcan Aluminum Ltd supplied Imperial with its aluminum packaging. When Alcan became one of the first companies to institute a workplace ban on smoking in 1980, Imperial Tobacco launched a campaign to convince the manufacturer to reverse its ban, The Montreal Gazette reported.1
First the tobacco company tried the friendly way. Imperial Tobacco’s president and chairman Paul Paré wrote a letter to the president of Alcan expressing his disapproval of the ban, complaining he had not been informed about it and suggesting it might have a negative impact on relations between the two companies. “I merely register my disappointment at seeing it in place and my difficulty of reconciling it with our long-standing corporate relationships,” he wrote.

Creating Doubt

Still according to The Montreal Gazette, Imperial then marshalled the forces of its public affairs department to convince Alcan to retreat from its ban. Department director Michel Descôteaux met with a senior Alcan official and warned him that depriving workers of the right to smoke on the job could lead to increased stress in the workplace and a rise in the number of workplace accidents. He also sent Alcan officials research papers written by tobacco industry scientists that denied there was proof of a link between smoking and cancer.
The paper also wrote,

Until his retirement in 2002, Descôteaux was the chief spokesperson for Imperial and one of the architects of its policy to discredit the overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking is addictive and causes cancer and other diseases. In a memo dated Oct. 7, 1976, Descôteaux claimed the public will be “operating for a long time in a climate of doubt about the real effects of smoking on human health.”

He worried that too many dead customers could stir up public opposition.

“People who smoke themselves to a premature death may be good customers in the short run but they certainly contribute to the scary statistics and provide wonderful ammunition for tobacco adversaries.” He suggested the company “strive towards having more people smoke less rather than fewer people who would abuse of smoking.”(emphasis added).

Denying Link Between Smoking and Health

In the same memo, he said that perhaps in 50 years it will be scientifically established to the industry’s satisfaction that smoking is hazardous to human health. But in the meantime, “the position I suggest we adopt is that we are innocent until proven guilty.

Referring to scientific studies that show smoking may be hazardous to human health, he wrote that the company “should denounce these with vigor and try to discredit them as much as possible.

He also suggested the company develop products “that would provide the same satisfaction as today’s cigarettes without ‘enslaving’ consumers.” (emphasis added).

In another memo, Michel Descôteaux noted that more women are smoking probably because of the women’s liberation movement. “Perhaps it will be more difficult to convince women that they should stop smoking, enough to make every one of us some of the most ardent feminists!”1

Refusing to Warn Pregnant Employees to Follow Medical Advice

In a memo he wrote in 1981, he recommended that the company not follow advice from Imperial’s major stockholder, British American Tobacco, that employees follow doctors’ advice not to smoke while pregnant.
Descôteaux wrote in the memo employees should be told that “in the absence of definitive answers to this question, many doctors advice (sic) their pregnant patients to modify their smoking habits during pregnancy as a sensible part of prenatal behaviour.” He added that advising employees to follow the advice of their doctors “could open the door to claims for warnings on cigarette packages.2

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  1. abcWilliam Marsden, Imperial sought to discredit scientific evidence against tobacco, trial hears, The Montreal Gazette, 19 March 2012, accessed March 2012
  2. William Marsden Tobacco suit: Imperial had no credibility with general public, ex-spokesman says, The Montreal Gazette, 14 March 2012, accessed March 2012