Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Day 38 - The hired gun

There are few Conservative backroom powerbrokers with Mr. Neville's experience, political acumen and popularity... a Tory with Liberal roots, an experienced political strategist with the trust of the party, a man much loved by his friends and colleagues.
Stevie Cameron,
Globe and Mail, March 12, 1987 
Bill Neville was one of the first professional lobbyists in Canada, and for many years was viewed as one of the most successful among them.

Today he was the twelfth witness to be sworn in at the Montreal trial against the three big tobacco companies operating in Canada. He was called to speak of his time as consultant to and president of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council, from 1985 to 1997.

In a dark suit that did not conceal his stooping shoulders and a bright green tie and matching handkerchief, the 76-year-old Bill Neville now looks more like a member of a seniors' bridge club than a powerbroker. But the charm and intelligence that had kept him on the 'call list' of important people was still in evidence. His answers to the questions put by plaintiff lawyer, Bruce Johnston, were direct, seemingly candid and often amusing. The atmosphere in the courtroom during his testimony was atypically relaxed and attentive.

The CTMC and the federal role

The close relationship
between Bill Neville and
Brian Mulroney was
seen as a threat to the
passage of bill C-51
Bill Neville brought his strategic talents to the tobacco companies when they very much needed help - during the period leading up to the adoption in 1988 of the first Canadian laws on  tobacco marketing and labelling and smoking in federally-regulated places. As distant as those events now seem, they are a key period in the timeframe of this lawsuit.

Each of the companies involved in this suit has taken the position that  federal government should bear some or all of any liability because of the role it played in setting policy. Imperial Tobacco witnesses have also said that an agreement with Health Canada prohibited them from warning their clients about the health effects of cigarettes.

Today's evidence undermines the suggestion that the federal government was in charge or that the tobacco companies were in any way obeisant. It shows the lengths to which the industry was willing to go to avoid, delay and alter directives from government and their ability to influence those directions.

And as for an agreement with Health Canada to not permit warnings? In answer to Bruce Johnston's direct question as to whether there was any restriction or impediment in the capacity of your clients to communicate to consumers? Mr. Neville replied Not in law that I was aware of.

A sincere representative

As president of the CTMC, Mr. Neville reported to the heads of the three major tobacco companies that are currently on trial (Imperial Tobacco/BAT, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges/PMI and JTI-Macdonald) and his work involved more than just lobbying government officials: he was working to influence unions and others on second hand smoke issues, develop research strategies, improve the social acceptability of smoking. (Exhibit 421).

Although he described himself as a 'hired gun' to the industry, Mr. Neville made it clear that he was no hypocrite and said the position of the industry "coincided with my views". Reflecting on that period today, he still uses the word "extremist" to describe policies like C-51 (the Tobacco Products Control Act). He had no kind words today for U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who had championed tobacco control. He used the term "zealot" to describe Gar Mahood, whose organization the Non Smokers' Rights Association lead the public campaign for tobacco laws in the 1980s.

(Gar Mahood, who was in the audience listening to Mr. Neville's testimony, could afford to smile at this  description, knowing that history and the 175 countries that have signed up to the same 'extemist' rules in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are on his side).

Even after all these years, Mr. Neville has no fondness even for basic tobacco control measure like health warnings. I have worked for beer and liquor industries. People know that if you drink too much you can have a traffic accident. But you don’t pick up a bottle of gin and read “don’t drink too much or you will have an accident”  Why should the tobacco industry have such rules?  

Ten Lessons from Mr. Neville

The documents introduced by Bruce Johnston and shown to Mr. Neville today may serve as a lesson plan for industry campaigns against government regulation.

Have a plan
In November 1986, Mr. Neville developed a detailed strategy with the goal "to avoid... the introduction of legislation on smoking and health." Part of that plan was to lessen the influence of the minister's officials, to build caucus pressure, and to make known economic threats. (Exhibit 429) The CTMC was structured to allow expansive activities governed by its members (Exhibit 421).

Work with a fifth column
During the period that Mr. Neville worked for the CTMC, the Assistant Deputy Minister within the department who was responsible for tobacco regulation was Dr. Bert Liston.  Dr. Liston's position against labelling tobacco an addiction was contrary to the scientific opinion of the Surgeon General and the Royal Society who had been commissioned by Health Canada to study the issue, but it conveniently aligned with the views of the tobacco companies. (Exhibit 430)  Mr. Neville confirmed today that Dr. Liston worked as a consultant for the tobacco companies after his retirement from Health Canada.

Spread the word
Not everyone would put making a speech to the Administrative Management Society Dinner at the top of their to do list -- especially if it involved travelling to Kitchener in November. Bill Neville's speech there in 1987 (Exhibit 420 A) shows his skill at positioning the industry's 'reasonable' position against the government's 'extremism' as well as his willingness to eat rubber-chicken dinners for the cause.

Mobilize the payroll
Verner Knott, a scientist working at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, was a long-time recipient of financing from the CTMC to research the benefits of smoking. Mr. Neville's had the task of making sure Dr. Knott's views -- once edited by tobacco industry lawyers - were made known to parliamentarians. (Exhibit 422)

Mobilize the friendlies
The trial has already heard about the Smokers' Freedom Society, and its efforts to present mokers' views as being aligned with those of the company. Mr. Neville confirmed today that Michel Bédard had been recruited for the position mobilize smokers, and his 1988 memo on the organization shows his efforts to have funds for the society increased, and their activities expanded. (Exhibit 423)

Other front groups were also developed. Mr. Neville testified today that retailers (Exhibit 432) were an important constituency for the companies. These people, in political terms, had the advantage of being small business operations. They were in sometimes in certain parts of an ethnic concentration that has political benefits. They are a potentially useful constituency if they could be mobilized.

In an attempt to maintain sponsorship promotions, the CTMC recruited sponsored agencies to join "Coalition 51". The rationale behind the formation of the Coalition was that third parties could address the fundamental flaws of the Bill in a more credible fashion than the industry or industry family, and with the credibility increasing proportionally with the distancing of the industry. (Exhibit 332). To get around the fact that the artists involved are under pressure for siding with the industry, a PR (Burson-Marsteller) is hired as intermediary.

Have deep pockets.
While the operating budget of the CTMC during Mr. Neville's tenure was not revealed today, the bills for individual activities were very impressive.  Coalition 51 spent $197,000 in only one month, and about $5,000 for each member of Coalition 51. (Exhibit 332)  An adaptation of a UK study to dispute the impact of ad bans on children cost the CTMC $90,000 (Exhibit 420 B). The Smokers Freedom Society received up to $1 million a year, Mr. Neville testified today.

Learn from the Big Boys
Mr. Neville made annual trips to the U.S. to confer with the U.S. Tobacco Institute. On his return from a trip in the spring of 1988, he plans to mobilize trade unions, to coordinate scientific attacks on second hand smoke research through U.S. law offices, conduct a seminar on second hand smoke in Canada, and to use human rights legislation to block bans on smoking in offices. (Exhibit 424)

Know where your support lies
Mr. Neville received a list from Imperial Tobacco's public relations officer, Michel Descoteaux, on Conservative backbenchers likely to oppose Bill C-51. (Exhibit 425) Reading this list 25 years later in the courtroom, he laughed When I read that list I wondered how C-51 ever got passed.  I guess that's another subject for another day. 

Don't leave anything to chance
Preparing for meetings with Health and Welfare Canada, the industry worked through Mr. Neville to propose font types and font sizes for health warnings that were less "intensive" and  not "intrusive". (Exhibit 427).

Was maximizing the impact of the health warnings not a consideration of the companies?
asked Bruce Johnston.
MAXIMIZING their impact!? No. said the witness.

Keep your fingers on the pulse
The CTMC conducted public opinion polls that explored attitudes towards specific tobacco regulations and political party support. (Exhibit 431).

A lost history?

The documents from the CTMC introduced to date provide clarity and detail on the industry's activities to alter public policy and public attitudes - but it's not clear whether the whole story will ever be told.  Bruce Johnston asked Mr. Neville whether the CTMC was still in operations. There is no one in my position. It may exist legally but there is no office, he said. And as to what happened to the documents? I don’t know.


Just before Victoria Day weekend, a hearing was held on the question of whether some specific Imperial Tobacco documents should be kept confidential. So important was it to Imperial Tobacco to keep these documents secret that it pushed for an in camera hearing.

Yesterday, Justice Riordan gave his decision on the matter, and determined that most of the documents did not qualify for confidential status (although it is possible that information in one of the records may not be made fully public.)  Imperial Tobacco signalled that it would be asking to appeal this ruling, and requested the documents not be made available to the public until it is known whether an appeal would be granted.

At least to these untutored eyes, there are not many court rulings that you can pick up and expect to laugh. Justice Riordan's rulings, however, are fun to read. The single word paragraph 43 in this ruling -  "Franchement" - is hopefully well understood even by Toronto-based Nancy Roberts, who argued that her client's plans to subvert the effect of plain packaging should be sealed.

For goodness sake, indeed.

Mr. Neville's testimony continues tomorrow.