Thursday, 7 June 2012

Day 39 - Veteran of the tobacco wars

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

On his second day of testimony at the Montreal tobacco trials, William Henry Neville continued his reminiscence of being the chief lobbyist for Canada's main tobacco companies.

The skills that had kept Mr. Neville at the top of a competitive field of professional persuaders were evident throughout the day. Even the most seasoned lawyers (and judge) were not immune to his charms. (At the end of the day, Justice Riordan remarked that Joe Clark had been a lucky man to have had Mr. Neville as a principal secretary!)

There is likely no environment more starkly adversarial than a courtroom where parties square off with reputation and big money at stake. Standing in front of the judge, Mr. Neville was in the centre of such a room, and yet seemed to find a way of simultaneously pleasing all sides.

It's impossible to know what was really going on in the heads on those black-gowned shoulders, but from the back of the room it seemed a layer of tension had been removed. The questions flowed more quickly, objections and interventions were voiced in more moderate tones, and little jokes were shared across the aisle.

Was this the magical effect of a professional wheel-greaser - to make everyone feel good?

The old war horse

Mr. Neville was questioned about his work during the decade following 1985 - a period of fierce activity in the development of Canadian public policy on tobacco control and equally fierce counter-activity by the industry. In this Canadian tobacco war Bill Neville was a field marshal for an allied tobacco industry. It was his job to design the strategy, call for troops and direct the field engagement.

Today he looked and sounded like a veteran of a long-ago battle who had never adjusted to being demobilized. It wasn't just his physical frailty and raspy voice that made him sound like an ageing soldier. His perspectives remain rooted at the time of battle - like the legionnaire who still won't buy a Japanese car or drink German beer.

On other witnesses, these anachronisms have not washed, but Bill Neville could carry it off.

When asked by Bruce Johnston, for example, to confirm that the CTMC hired scientific researchers to produce studies supporting pre-determined conclusions (on addiction and advertising impact), Mr. Neville acknowledged this was the case and alluded to the norms of those he still labels as opponents. I am sure that Mr. Mahood, if he is still sitting back there, would do the same. Instead of reflecting on the use or abuse of 'advocacy research', as Mr. Neville put it, the room laughed.

Mr. Neville had cited a WHO study which looked at smoking patterns among young people in four countries and found that those where advertising ban were in effect did not smoke at lower rates than those were they were. Although the the scientists had addressed the need to look at the changing patterns over time in countries where ad bans were put in place and not just compare across boundaries, Mr. Neville chose to ignore that fact.

Even today, when presented with evidence that the scientists had refuted his interpretation of their findings, Mr. Neville declined the opportunity to change his view. He scoffed  that the scientists had probably been pressured and that their rebuttal to the industry view was "a run-for-cover explanation in my humble position." Instead of taking the time to explore Mr. Neville's refusal to acknowledge the difference between measuring differences across time and differences across borders, the issue was dropped.

Time has not softened his views towards those 'extremists' in Health Canada who promoted policy change nor diminished his a high regard for those who stalled policy reforms. Mr. Neville today said of Health Canada ADM Bert Liston, who resisted warning Canadians of the addictive nature of tobacco even though a scientific consensus had been well established, He represented the government of Canada with skill and reasonableness.  He was prepared to negotiate common sense solutions.

If the world has moved on to a time when clean-air laws, bans on tobacco advertising and health warnings are no longer considered controversial, Mr. Neville has not moved with it.

The memorabilia

A number of documents that were presented today are not yet available, as they are in the process of being redacted or are the subject of a hearing on Monday (June 11) regarding parliamentary privilege.  Among those that were made public are several that provide new light on how the tobacco industry fought back in the 80s, including:

Exhibit 440:  The CTMC receives a low-down on the Ontario government strategy, and an explanation of why they were backing down with their proposed law.

Exhibit 441:  Bill Neville devises a strategy to try to take away the charitable status of the Non-Smokers Rights Association (last paragraph).

Exhibit 445:  The CTMC helps mobilize votes at the Ontario Pharmacists Association against those who supported bans on tobacco sales in pharmacies.

Exhibit 446:  The CTMC struggles with member companies who were, as Bill Neville said today "too cute" in subverting regulations.

Exhibit 449:  Speaking notes used to try to discourage support from C-51.

Exhibit 462:  Exploring the use of youth smoking prevention  programs as a way of improving the image of the companies.

The plaintiff's finished their questions for Mr. Neville by mid afternoon.  Each of the industry lawyers had a small number of questions which invited him to say polite but disparaging things about public servants who promoted tobacco control (former Surgeon General Koop was singled out as being motivated through religious views and not public health).  Even though the bulk of the two-day testimony had been focused on the industry's relationship with the government of Canada, lawyers representing the government asked no questions.

As usual, the court will not sit on Fridays.  On Monday, a hearing will be held on a number of documents for which the industry has claimed parliamentary privilege. The scheduling of witnesses has taken an almost comic air of confusion, but next week I believe that another CTMC employee, Jacques Larivière, will testify.

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.