Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Day 57: Quebec's homegrown tobacco boss

See note on accessing documents at the end of this post. 

A new chapter opened in the trial of the Montreal class action suits against Canada's big three tobacco companies on Tuesday, September 18th.

The plaintiffs have (mostly) ended their inquiries of witnesses from BAT's Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Tobacco. Today the focus shifted to JTI-Macdonald, the Canadian subsidiary of Japan Tobacco. They began at the top by calling as their first witness the president of the company, Mr. Michel Poirier. 

Mr. Poirier is not only the head of the Canadian operations, he is also Regional President for the Americas Region for Japan Tobacco International. That is to say, he is a directing mind in the world's third largest tobacco multinational. (JTI-Macdonald is 100% owned by Japan Tobacco International which is 100% owned by Japan Tobacco, which has one principal shareholder - the Japanese government).

Mr. Poirier's testimony is thus an important moment in public health history as well as in this case, in that it allows the views and positions of a global player to be exposed, recorded and examined. The transcripts of his time on the witness stand today and tomorrow will warrant careful analysis -- sadly problems with amplification in the room today made it impossible to provide reliable quotes in this overnight report. 

Hier, Montréal. Today, the world. 

Although he now lives in Oakville, Mr. Poirier is a local boy. He studied science at Montreal's elite College Brébeuf CEGEP. 

Yet despite his Montreal roots and French-language education, he elected to testify in English. Quebec courts are truly accommodating to the linguistic needs of foreign owners!

A bit of excitement

Six months in, the trial has lost much of its regular following, and on many days there are only three or four witnesses to the proceedings in the courtroom (two bloggers and a couple of insurance industry observers).

Today, however, there was a buzz in the air, a security detail in the hallway, a few dozen new faces in the room -- and television cameras waiting in the small designated camera spot near the elevators. It felt like the occasion it was.

Michel Poirier
President, JTI-Macdonald
The president and his sizeable entourage cut a good picture. Tall, smart-looking, well-dressed and with an air of importance, these (mostly) men looked like a short list from a casting call for Mad Men.

Mr. Poirier looks like he stepped out of the cover of a glossy business magazine. At 54 years of age, his hair is authoritatively grey where his face is bronzed and youthful. He may have learned a thing or two about looking good in the jobs he had before joining the tobacco business in 1998 --  working at Revlon, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, and Alberto-Culver.  

And a mannerly start

Today's proceedings were among the most polite of the trial to date. This may reflect the start of a new chapter, or it may be the result of rotation of players. Now it is counsel for JTI-Macdonald, led by Guy Pratte, who occupy the front row and who lead the industry's defense. 

Mr. Poirier also made an impression with the style of his answers. By the standards of this trial, he was direct, brief and clear in his answers. There was no apparent hiding behind jargon or weasel words. Both good and lame answers were given in the same deadpan delivery. This flat demeanor is not without tactical considerations: a business profile on Mr. Poirier quotes his belief that "visible reactions always make things worse."

Certainly it worked for him. Justice Riordan seemed both relaxed around and attentive to this witness, looking at him intensely and engaging more frequently in the exchanges. On a few occasions when Mr. Poirier attempted to provide an answer to a different question than the one he was asked, Justice Riordan intervened to clarify the question and press (successfully) for an answer. 

Some important questions

Mr. Trudel took the witness through a quick tour of the key issues of the trial --  public communications on smoking and health issues, scientific research within the company, knowledge of health risks within the company, communication of risks to smokers, compensation and light cigarettes, addiction, marketing to youth, etc. 

He began by introducing the current public position of Japan Tobacco on key issues, asking the witness to elaborate on the applicability of those positions to JTI-Macdonald in the current conetxt. (Smoking and Health - Exhibit 565; Reduced risk - Exhibit 560, Code of Conduct - Exhibit 561 and emloyee Code of Conduct Exhibit 566; Pack values for tar and nicotine - Exhibit 562, Health effects of active smoking - Exhibit 564; Addiction - Exhibit 567 and 568)

Mr. Poirier explained that JTI-Macdonald's R&D activities were focused on product development, and that research related to health issues was conducted in Japan, while the application of some of that research to product issues was done in Geneva. The research is more focused on how we come up with a safer cigarette, he explained, but although the company is coming up with products that could be alternatives, the problem is they are not accepted by consumers. 

He described the development of a less harmful but popular cigarette as the "holy grail" of the industry, but offered little appetite for a crusade. His company had not introduced snus in Canada, for example, because there is not sufficient demand.

This pattern of answers was repeated throughout the day: 'on the one hand we say we are doing the right thing (i.e. developing safer cigarettes), but on the other hand we have found reasons to not actually do them (i.e. we aren't selling any, and it is the fault of other actors).'

Mr. Poirier conceded that the company had not likely ever contributed knowledge of a new harmful component of cigarette smoke through research, but did not seem troubled about it. The harmfulness of smoking is well known he said, citing his own view as a five year old that every cigarette is a nail in your coffin.

Philip Trudelle tried to elicit a distinction between knowledge that there were risks involved in smoking and knowledge of the specifics risks, such as likelihood of getting sick or dying from smoking. Despite repeated questions, Mr. Poirier would not be drawn into exposing any awareness of specific risks (of disease, death or addiction). 

Many of his answers were at the very least ambivalent: 

- He said that the harmfulness of cigarette smoking was well known, yet could not identify many diseases himself, nor quantify the risk of disease nor the magnitude of harm. 

- He said it was important that consumers understand the consequences of smoking, but that giving them detailed information on the risks of smoking would "dilute" the overall message that smoking can kill you. 

- He recounted his concerns before accepting a position at (then) RJR-Macdonald that the company's views were aligned with his belief that smokers should know the risks, but offered no support for the regulatory changes in risk communication since then. 

- The JTI principle of transparency and openness with smokers has to be applied, he said, but then qualified that it was up to each market to determine what level of transparency was required and no further action was required in Canada.

- He acknowledged that cigarettes were addictive, but thought it would be a 'disservice' to smokers to tell them that some people can't quit. When people are motivated enough they can quit, he said.

No voluntary measures

Mr. Trudelle showed the witness an exchange of letters between him and former health minister, Allan Rock. The minister of health had asked the companies to stop using terms like "light" on their cigarettes (Exhibit 563). In Mr. Poirier's response he had agreed to merits of providing more information to consumers about light cigarettes being no less harmful (Exhibit 563A), the company had taken no voluntary measures. 

Today Mr. Poirier did not accept that 'light' cigarettes are considered by smokers to be safer. He had no research of his own to support this position, and blamed the government of Canada for not having made its research available during the (closed-door) negotiations with the Competition Bureau that led to an agreement with the company to end the use of some descriptors.

Mr. Trudel asked him about a position of JTI-Macdonald represented in their challenge to health warnings (available on Legacy), which was likely made while Mr. Poirier was heading the company. The origin of this document are still a little murky, but in it JTI-Macdonald is cited as saying if it identifies some component of tobacco or cigarettes as harmful, then we will immediately remove that component. After being prompted by Justice Riordan to answer whether this was the position of the company in 2001, Mr. Poirier qualified the commitment.  I think we would say that if it possible to remove it and if the product is still acceptable to consumers, we would remove it

In an even more stark contrast between testimony today and documentary records, Mr. Poirier affirmed that in 2001 the addictiveness of smoking was well accepted (he hastened to add in the modern meaning of the word). Yet in these contemporaneous court filings, the company had said There is no scientific agreement on a definition as to what degree of use constitutes addiction, nor on what addiction is .


Ad for Export A
Extreme Sports Series
circa 2001
Towards the end of this first day, Mr. Trudel introduced the company's policies and activities on advertising. Among the exhibits introduced were those tracing the development of the sponsorship promotions for Quebec during Mr. Poirier's early years at JTI-Macdonald.  (Exhibits 571, A, B, C, D, E

Mr. Poirier denied that advertising could recruit youth to smoking. My experience in over 30 years is that people do not adopt a product category they already know exists by advertising. Sponsorship advertising is even more remote, he said, as it doesn't talk about the product. 

He did concede that motocross was something that would likely appeal to those under 18 years of age.  

Mr. Poirier returns tomorrow for his second and likely last day of testimony 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: https://tobacco.asp.visard.ca

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