Influencing Science: Imperial Tobacco Canada

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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.


The three corporations brought to trial were: Imperial Tobacco Canada,3 Rothmans Benson & Hedges, owned by Philip Morris International (PMI), and Japan Tobacco International subsidiary JTI McDonald. The class action suit was brought by people who contracted cancer or emphysema as a result of smoking, or were addicted to smoking. The case revolved around whether the tobacco companies met their duty to inform customers about the dangers of smoking.

Michel Descôteaux was the first witness in the trial. He began working for Imperial Tobacco in 1963 and for 20 years was its only spokesperson.2In 1976, Descôteaux was 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, which was increasingly under fire about the damage its products caused and Descôteaux wrote a memo to Imperial’s vice-president at the time, Tony Kalhok, responding to these concerns:1

“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.”1

Until he retired in 2002, Descôteaux was “one of the architects of its policy to discredit the overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking is addictive and causes cancer and other diseases.”1

Workplace Smoking Ban

In the 1980s, Alcan Aluminum Ltd. supplied Imperial with its aluminium 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.1

Imperial Tobacco president and chairman Paul Paré wrote 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””.1

Creating Doubt

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.”  Descôteaux also sent Alcan officials research papers written by tobacco industry scientists which denied that there was proof of a link between cancer and smoking.

Denying Link Between Smoking and Health

In the 1976 memo, quoted above, Descôteaux said that the “position I suggest [Imperial Tobacco Canada] adopt is that we are innocent until proven guilty.”1

In response to the increasing number of studies indicating that cigarettes were dangerous to people’s health, Descoteax said that Imperial should denounce these with vigor and try to discredit them as much as possible” and should develop products “that would provide the same satisfaction as today’s cigarettes without ‘enslaving’ consumers.”1

Refusing to Warn Pregnant Employees to Follow Medical Advice

In another memo Descôteaux wrote that more women were smoking 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

Descôteaux went on to recommend that the company not follow advice from British American Tobacco (Imperial’s major stockholder) which said that employees should follow doctors’ advice not to smoke while pregnant. He wrote that employees should be told :

“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 also said that advising employees to follow the advice of doctors “could open the door to claims for warnings on cigarette packages.”2

Tobacco Tactics Resources

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  1. abcdefghiWilliam Marsden, Imperial sought to discredit scientific evidence against tobacco, trial hears, The Montreal Gazette, 19 March 2012, accessed March 2012
  2. abcWilliam Marsden, Tobacco suit: Imperial had no credibility with general public, ex-spokesman says, The Montreal Gazette, 14 March 2012, accessed March 2012
  3. Imperial Tobacco Canada is now a wholly owned subsidiary of British American Tobacco