Thursday, 20 September 2012

Day 59: The bench scientist before the bench

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

On Thursday September 20th, the plaintiffs in the Montreal tobacco class actions called their second witness from Japan Tobacco's Canadian subsidiary, JTI-Macdonald.

His name is Ray Howie, and he is an analytical chemist who joined the company shortly after it was acquired by RJ Reynolds Tobacco International in the early 1970s. He came with seven years' experience working for Gallaher, a UK-based tobacco multinational which, like RJR-Macdonald, was eventually acquired by Japan Tobacco.

Mr. Howie eventually rose to the director of RJR-Macdonald's research unit (in 1989), and later was promoted even higher to become regional research director at the international headquarters in Geneva. He retired in 2001.

It may have been the Gallaher connection which made me think his still-thick accent is Northern Irish. He certainly had a celtic look -- slender, not tall, fair and with thick curly hair that would once have been black. His brilliant lavender tie stood out against the black and white wardrobe of the court.

A pleasant atmosphere

The trial is still adjusting to the change in players. Today a new member of the JTI legal team was introduced - Mr. Keven LaRoche from the firm of Borden Ladner Gervais. Like others on that company's defense team, he tried hard to set a cordial - even amiable - tone.  He is another Ontario-based lawyer who prefers to speak in English.

On the plaintiffs' side, it was the always-gracious Mr. Lespérance who put questions to Mr. Howie. With these men in the lead, and with a witness who offered no resistance to questions, the day passed at a steady but relaxed clip.

(Oh yes, it might have helped that Mr. Howie was well prepared for this session -- he said he had spent 20 days with JTI's lawyers preparing for this testimony.)

Montreal is a long way from Winston Salem

Mr. Howie arrived at RJR-Macdonald in 1974, shortly after his boss Derek Crawford had also been engaged to head the new research unit. It was a period of rapid expansion - going from a staff of 4 in early 1974 to a staff of 18 by the end of the year (Exhibit 581). Within two years, Mr. Howie was supervising ten technicians (Exhibit 582), and by the end of the decade the number of staff in the R&D department was over 30 (Exhibit 584, 584A). Mr. Howie became head of the department in 1989 (Exhibit 589) but by 1995 the research staff had been reduced to 18 (Exhibit 591).

Mr. Howie explained that the work of the unit was entirely devoted to product development and process development - making better cigarettes and making cigarettes more cheaply. They did nothing on fundamental research on tobacco and disease.

By the time he arrived in Canada, Mr. Howie explained, "the feeling was the best thing we could do as a tobacco company would be to reduce tar, because reducing tar meant reducing all the specific compounds that were carcinogenic." It was possible to remove specific compounds that were especially harmful, but for commercial reasons it wasn't done: "it doesn’t make sense because you have to have a sellable product." (See R&D Strategy in Exhibits 585586587588).

One of the priorities of the Montreal research firm was implementing cost-savings measures. "We found that the cigarettes that were being manufactured in 1974 by Macdonald tobacco were, shall we say, not the best cigarettes that you could make. They were throwing away a lot of tobacco that should have been used." The research unit was tasked with looking for ways to eliminating waste, reduce the density of tobacco and increase the length of the filter (Exhibit 584).

Although no work on smoking and health was done in Montreal, there was a sizeable research capacity at the headquarters of its owners, RJ Reynolds. At Winston Salem "they had 400 to 500 people qualified to do those jobs."

Adding stuff to the cigarette

Mr. Howie was asked what safety evaluation was conducted on new cigarette designs. Some new components were analysed, he said, but the company relied on third-party approval. "There was a committee called the Hunter committee that put out a list of additives that were perfectly okay from a safety point of view to add to cigarettes. We strictly used the Hunter committee list.  If it wasn’t on the Hunter list, we wouldn’t use it."

He said that by the 1990s, the company had stopped using most flavourings, although other additives were used.
"There still would be menthol in menthol brand. We would be adding water – those were our 2 big additives. There were certain additives to the cigarette paper because without the additives you can't have cigarette paper, it falls apart. We would have additives in our reconstituted sheet which would be put in by the manufacturers of the reconstituted. You can't have reconstituted sheet without additives, it falls apart." Glycerol was also used. Although he had not seen any safety sheet of the impact of burned glycerol, he was not concerned because it was on the Hunter list so "from a toxicological point of view it is fine."

Manipulating nicotine levels

There was no hesitation in Mr. Howie's explanation that research was intended to increase "nicotine impact" and to reduce tar, which he said was supported by the scientific community at the time. Among the work done to "give a little more of the nicotine impact and a little bit less of the tar" was the work of the government's Delhi research station to "really push the strains of tobacco in the nicotine direction."

But RJR-Macdonald had its own research agenda to increase nicotine delivery. Mr. Howie described the work of his colleague, John Hood to add ammonia to tobacco. "Canadian Virginia flue cured tobacco is very acidic. He was trying to get the pH up .. what that does is it gives you free nicotine which theoretically is more easily absorbed through the membranes."  (Exhibit 585) (John Hood is scheduled to testify in October.)

Making cigarette smoke easier to inhale was also an area of research. The company was trying to "get less of the vapour phase which contains compounds which are known to be irritating, like acids and aldehydes," because this would make "a smoother more acceptable product for our consumers." 

Mr. Howie was obviously proud of the work that was done by his company to reduce the tar in cigarettes, boasting of the reduction of the Sales Weighted Average Tar of cigarettes manufactured by the company from 18 mg of tar per cigarette in 1975 to 9 in 1990.

So does smoking cause cancer?

When asked whether cigarette smoke contained compounds known to cause cancer, Mr. Howie comfortably answered that it did. "Lets say there are 4000 compounds in tobacco smoke ...anything from 30 to 40 to 50 are carcinogenic." But when it came to the big question of whether tobacco caused disease, he hesitated.

Q. Do you remember what the company was stating with respect to tobacco and disease?
A. I don’t remember.

Q. Did it acknowledge that tobacco caused disease?
A. I don’t know.

Q. You were head of the research Department starting in 1988?
A. Yes.

Q. As the head of the research department you can't inform the court what was the position of RJR-Macdonald on the issue of whether tobacco caused disease?
A. I repeat. I can give my position but I can't give the company position.

Justice Riordan: You don’t even know if there was a company position?
A. That’s correct.

His own view, offered somewhat after this exchange was that the statistical link did not prove causality, agreeing that "no satisfactory mechanism has been described for any disease."
Many of the exhibits presented today show that Derek Crawford (Mr. Howie's predecessor as head of R&D) was quite involved in "smoking and health". (Exhibit 212A, 212B593, 594, 595, 596, 597)  Mr. Crawford is now dead, and today's witness stressed that he was never engaged in this type of discussion or work. "I had my white coat on and was in the laboratory," he repeated.

Defending formaldehyde from government attack

At the end of the day, however, he revealed his own actions in trying to counter government education campaigns on the harms of smoking.  In 1998, the British Columbia government had widely distributed a poster on the chemicals found in smoke. Mr Howie was working on a response (Exhibit 599)

British Columbia Health Campaign

Q. Why did you nmeed to provide a response?
A. They had billboards scattered around B.C. showing for example formaldehyde - it would show a bottle with a frog in it and the frog was dead... 

To me it was a little bit biased. The actual levels of benzpyrene, formaldehyde etcetera  the ones that are often cited as cauasing diseases are small that it really doesn’t harm anyone ...

Q. Did you deny that tobacco smoke was harmful?
A. That wasn’t the point. They were aiming these ads at specific compounds within tobacco smoke and we were addressing  - we were redressing – their comments..

Mr. Howie will continue his testimony next Monday, September 24th, and is expected to finish the following day.

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.

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