Thursday, 6 September 2012

Day 54: Too busy making cigarettes to think about health

For the second day the Montreal tobacco trial was split into two sessions: a Montreal morning session focused on the introduction of exhibits and an afternoon session (morning in Victoria) given over to the testimony of what is likely to be the trial's oldest witness, the nonagenarian Peter Gage.

Mr. Gage, like his testimony, is evocative of a previous time. Today he was wearing his regimental blazer and tie (he was a sub-mariner in the British forces during the Second World War). His bearing and his manners of speech, like his choice of clothing, are charmingly anachronistic - even by the standards of Victoria, B.C.!

The lessened discipline of a conference call is as true in a courtroom as it is in the boardroom - and the poker faces of the lawyers (and judge) watching from Montreal relaxed frequently - even laughing - during Mr. Gage's testimony in ways they would not if he had been in the room.  It was not only because of deference to age that he seemed to be given a high level of respect, but also his apparent sincerity and intelligence.

Peter Gage never had the benefit of going to university - he entered the British wartime navy directly from school (from his accent, I'll wager it was a posh one). Following demobilization he signed up as a management trainee at a cigarette factory in Britain where he worked until he immigrated to Canada a decade later.

That is to say, his entire career was in the tobacco business, much of it during a more innocent time when tobacco was, as it was put to him today, a "normal" product.

The Cross Examination

Yesterday, it was JTI-Macdonald lawyer, Doug Mitchell, who directed questions to Mr. Gage. Almost all of today's questions were put by plaintiff lawyer, Bruce Johnston.

Mr. Johnston focused on the way the companies and Mr. Gage became aware of and responded to the knowledge about the harms of smoking. At some point, like the Kubler-Ross' 5 stages of grief, a model of the stages that corporations go through after they learn of unwelcome science may be developed. Certainly Mr. Gage's testimony and the documents introduced into evidence today are ripe for such an analysis.

In his mannerly and courteous style, Mr. Gage's answers were a variation of : I wasn't told, I didn't know, It wasn't my responsibity, I had a job to do. With seemingly no sense of irony, he said more than once that he was too busy making cigarettes to think about the health harm they were causing.

"I was very busy at imperial tobacco – I had nine plants to look after. I didn’t have time to consider matters of smoking and health ... I have no recollection at ll of getting involved  especially at Imperial Tobacco, they had competent people to look after that sort of thing."

"We had been making cigarettes and we were still making cigarettes and my job was to make sure we kept making cigarettes. There was no conflict in my mind."

As courteous and charming as he was, there were some questions he was not going to answer. Bruce Johnston tried to get out of him when it was that he knew that tobacco caused disease.

Q. In 1971 did you believe that it caused any diseases?
A. Not specifically, no. In my view, which was the same as the general public at the time, there was a question and we didn’t know what the problem was and hopefully research would find out some answers for us.

Q. How is that different than a controversy?
A. I have to allow lawyers to answer that.

Q. Mr. Hardy [a US lawyer advising the CTMC] was a lawyer. When he said there was an existing controversy, what did you understand him to mean by that?. Did you understand that there was a question?

A. I fear that if I answer your question I am only providing you with a guess and I don’t think it is going to assist you if I guessed.

Nonetheless, Mr. Gage was self-aware of some internal dissonance. He said the question of when he accepted that smoking caused disease was "rather like when did you stop beating your wife." While he could not bring himself to say cigarettes cause disease, he knew there was a "health problem" and that it was "in the product, not the person." Repeatedly, Mr. Johnston pressed him to say what that "health problem" was, but he would not give any specifics - never identifying lung cancer or other diseases.   

Mr. Gage gave up smoking in 1972 - but did not tell anyone he had done so. 

Curious meetings

The documents entered into evidence during Mr. Gage's testimony are not so clear that he had no hand in or knowledge of the smoking and health controversy.

This senior executive in two Canadian tobacco companies (he was vice president at Macdonald before he moved to Imperial Tobacco, where he sat on IMASCO's Board of Directors) was present at key meetings where the tobacco companies collaborated on strategies related to "smoking and health." These records include:
  • a record of a CTMC meeting (where Mr. Gage was present) where the Canadian companies were receiving advice from the (notorious) David Hardy and where the companies agreed to voluntary measures to avoid legislation. (Exhibit 542)
  • A detailed situation report of the industry in Canada, based on a meeting with the CTMC (where Mr. Gage was present). The CTMC acknowledged that its research activities of the CTMC were a "scientific relations gesture" and that "Canadian manufacturers are not interested in safer cigarettes. (Exhibit 543) (It also details the ability of the industry to do an end run around the health minister to the Prime Minister's office) 
Back to the fifties

1958 Rothmans ad
Peter Gage's testimony came a few hours after the plaintiffs entered a series of documents that are so old that there are likely no witnesses alive and available to be questioned about them. These records show that tobacco companies in Canada were very active on the smoking and health file at about the same time that Peter Gage was newly arrived in Canada.
  • As early as 1954, Imperial Tobacco's executives (John Keith and Leo Laporte) met with the Assistant Deputy Minister of Health to discuss lung cancer and smoking. (Exhibit 535)
  • Patrick O'Neil-Dunne, the head of Rothmans in Canada, shocked his colleagues with an admission that Rothmans "accepts the statistical evidence linking lung cancer with heavy smoking. This is done as a precautionary measure in the interests of smokers." Other companies fell on him like a ton of bricks (Exhibit 536 A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H)  

The weeks ahead

Tomorrow Bruce Johnston will continue his questioning of Mr. Gage and our report will be blogged on Monday.

The court will then adjourning until September 17th, when it will return to the Monday through Thursday schedule. On that week, three witnesses are scheduled:  Rita Ayoung (former librarian for Imperial Tobacco), Michel Poirier (President of JTI-Macdonald) and Ray Howie (scientist with JTI-Macdonald).