03/13/2012 01:52 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Tobacco Lawsuit: Canada's Smokers Knew Risks Decades Ago, Says Former Exec


MONTREAL - A retired tobacco spokesman told a historic civil trial that people suing cigarette companies today must have been "blind" if they missed reports dating back to the 1960s that smoking could be harmful.

During the first full day of testimony Tuesday, he said his company was under fire over the potential health risks decades ago from a skeptical media and public which stopped believing tobacco companies' statements on the issue.

Michel Descoteaux, who headed Imperial Tobacco's public-relations department for more than two decades, is the first witness in a landmark class-action suit, the biggest civil trial in Canadian history. It pits Quebec smokers against Canada's three biggest cigarette companies: Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald.

The smokers accuse the tobacco companies of misleading them over the years about the potential danger from cigarettes.

The landmark case, with up to $27 billion at stake, is also considered the biggest class-action suit in Canadian history and is the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.

Taking the witness stand, Descoteaux said the evidence the company actually had in the 1960s, gathered by company scientists and researchers, was that there was no link between smoking and public health.

But he testified that the general public and news media dismissed such reports back then and demanded that the company come clean.

"Public opinion was cigarettes were causing all kinds of deaths and the company (made) comments that weren't in keeping with that," Descoteaux said under questioning from plaintiff lawyer Bruce Johnston.

"You would have had to be blind to see that we had no credibility with the media and it was the same with the smokers and the general public."

Descoteaux said that over a period spanning three decades the company's opinion on health effects evolved — from the notion that there was no relationship to disease, to the idea that there was a risk from smoking around 2000.

As for the details of how this change occurred, or exactly when the company knew, Descoteaux said he couldn't answer, despite being the company's only spokesman for more than 20 years.

He said the company did not engage in the debate when asked about health risks and that the company's answers were typically short. He invited the court to examine the evolution in wording in company news releases to find a timeline.

In 1969, the company produced an internal newsletter called The Leaflet that stated emphatically that there is "no proof that smoking causes human disease."

The issue of health risks was the No. 1 public-relations problem plaguing the tobacco industry and his company, even back then, Descoteaux said.

"We were willing to let people think the worse of us," Descoteaux said. "If I had the choice, I would have preferred the world would have loved us rather than not."

Descoteaux started working with Imperial in 1963, moved to public relations in the early 1970s and became the company's official spokesman in the late 1970s before retiring in 2002.

He said that his personal opinions were not at odds with that of the company when it came to health risks.

"If my convictions had been totally at odds with the company, I would have quit," said Descoteaux.

The civil trial, which is expected to last as long as two years, continues Wednesday.

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