Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Day 34 - Science class with Dr. Porter

For information on accessing documents, see note at the end of this post

If your eyes glaze over before you reach the end of this sentence, you will know that I have accurately captured the atmosphere today in the Montreal courtroom where Canadian tobacco companies are facing claims for $27 billion in damages.

Still with me?

Today was the second day of testimony for Dr. Andrew Porter, who worked as a chemist in Imperial Tobacco Canada's laboratories for about 30 years, starting in 1977. It felt like a very long day.

Yes, Virginia, tobacco smoke is toxic

During the first day of his testimony, Dr. Porter had made several references to the "Hoffmann list" of harmful compounds in tobacco smoke, developed by pioneering tobacco researcher Dr. Dietrich Hoffmann. Today, plaintiff lawyer Pierre Boivin began his questioning by producing a 1997 memo written by Dr. Porter's former boss, Dr. Stewart Massey, about the Hoffmann list (Exhibit 364). He started to ask Dr. Porter to provide details on the chemicals on the list, but when he arrived at the second substance (hydrogen cyanide) he was interrupted from the bench.

The court had been in session for only 10 minutes, and already the Judge was impatient.

Justice Riordan: You aren’t going to go through this list one by one!  Couldn’t you just ask him to say which ones aren’t carcinogenic?

Pierre Boivin: Okay, your honour. Dr. Porter, out of these chemicals, which ones weren't toxic or carcinogenic?

Dr. Porter. They were all known to be toxic or carcinogenic.

Justice Riordan.  You just shortened the trial by a week.

This exchange and the laughter that followed revealed the challenging nature of bringing science into the court room. Much easier to just accept that there are a week's worth of harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke than to delve into the details of a subject matter about which most in the room have little knowledge, and maybe even less interest.

Andrew Porter is no David Suzuki

If the scientific research conducted by Imperial Tobacco and its research partner/parent company, British American Tobacco, is in anyway interesting, you would not have known it from Dr. Porter's testimony.

It is not fair to expect a witness who has been summoned by lawyers seeking $27 billion from the hide of his former employer to make it easy to follow the company's secret research. But the content under discussion today is most certainly more riveting and important than Dr. Porter's trailing voice, mumbled replies, and overly complicated explanations would suggest.  (Would you have thought, for example, to define 'urea crystals' as he did -- an excretory product from the mammalian system in crystalline form ?)

This witness clearly was not going to volunteer to 'connect the dots' to produce a picture of his work of 30 years. Nonetheless, Mr. Boivin was able to use his presence in the court to put many important dots on the record.

More than 30 scientific documents were entered into evidence today, and later these may be used to give a clearer story of the role ITL's research team played in Quebec's tobacco epidemic. For tonight, just a sampling of the variety of material presented to the court.

Canadian cigarette additives: the K-numbers

Exhibit 374 -
Proprietary Additives
A previously unknown list which came to light today was the K-code of  additives kept by Imperial Tobacco.  The coding was used to maintain trade-secrecy. The suggestion by ITL that it is no longer in the additive business is weakened by the fact that it continues to claim trade secrecy over these numbers - much of Exhibit 372 was redacted.  Another list from 1984 annotated the use of more than 10 common additives in fine-cut tobacco, and referenced a further list of 53 "proprietary additives." (Exhibit 374)

Some of Dr. Porters research on these additives was also presented (Exhibits 378, 379, 380).

A more sensory cigarette.

BAT's web-site profiles research on making cigarettes less toxic and doesn't mention any research done to make cigarettes easier to smoke, more addictive or cheaper.  But the research strategy documents presented today suggest that the company had a research directive to make the "sensory" experience of smoking more pleasurable. (Exhibits 382, 381A).

To this end, BAT's researchers in Germany were looking at adding analgesics to make smoke less irritating, and its Montreal researchers were anticipating that reducing tar while increasing nicotine would require additives to keep cigarettes from being too irritating. (Exhibit 386).

Improving nicotine.

Tobacco trials in the U.S. were a key development in public knowledge about tobacco science and the use of ammonia and other means to enhance the effect of nicotine (see, for example, Hurt and Stevenson). When the "secret of Marlboro" was exposed, the world learned that ammonia was used to produce 'free-base' nicotine (a nicotine molecule with fewer bits hanging on to it giving it a faster drug effect).

Dr. Porter repeatedly dismissed the idea that unprotonated ('free-base') nicotine was a desirable cigarette characteristic. My understanding is that free base nicotine makes the cigarette very irritating. ... When you have free base, more is inhaled in the upper part than the lower part and takes longer to get to the central nervous system.

In research notes from the mid 80s, however, he wrote of interest in BAT in using free-base nicotine to improve "smoking pleasure and satisfaction" (Exhibit 358B). In 1985, BAT was looking at free nicotine to modify the sensory effects of smoking and ITL was looking at many ways to boost nicotine (Exhibit 377).

On many of the nicotine-related questions, Dr. Porter countered popular understandings. Smokers did not adjust their smoking to ensure a steady nicotine level, he said, but relied on all sorts of other cues and behavioural issues - like whether they smoked alone or in groups.  Again, his testimony was somewhat at odds with the documents from his department, which spoke of smokers' maintaining nicotine blood levels. (Exhibit 385).

He did, however, agree with the sentiment that "to benefit the industry, nicotine should be promoted as a useful and versatile drug" (although he said he would have phrased it differently).

Turns out smokers compensate after all

One of the areas of research expertise at the ITL laboratory in Montreal was smoker behaviour. They pioneered research methods to measure how smokers actually smoked. These methods allowed the industry to know years before government that smokers were defeating the design of low-tar cigarettes by inhaling more deeply and more often than they had on higher tar cigarettes.

Documents filed traced the decades' old knowledge at Imperial Tobacco that smokers of low-tar cigarettes would get more tar and nicotine from the cigarette than the machine-smoking values on the package suggested. Dr. Porter authored a review of ITL's research in this area from 1978 to 1994. (Exhibit 388).

Hidden truths

Each of the witnesses from Imperial Tobacco has provided their own flavour to this trial. Some have forgotten the answers, some have skated around the answers, some have misunderstood the questions. Dr. Porter seems to have a talent to make very revealing answers sound uninteresting.

Tomorrow is expected to be his last day at this trial.

To access trial documents linked to this site:

The documents are on the web-site maintained by the Plaintiff's lawyers. To access them, it is necessary to gain entry to the web-site. Fortunately, this is easy to do.

Step 1: Click on:

Step 2: Click on the blue bar on the splash-page "Acces direct a l'information/direct access to information" You will then be taken to the document data base.

Step 3: Return to this blog - and click on any links.