Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Patrick O'Neil-Dunne

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

The increased pace of witnesses at the Montreal trial of the tobacco class actions, and the steady flow of new exhibits has made it sometimes challenging to keep mental track of 'who said what' or 'who wrote what'. I confess at times the whole thing feels more than  a little blurred.

But in this rich soup of Canadian tobacco history there are some stories that are clear and memorable. One of them is told through the paper legacy of a tobacco pro and former fighter pilot who came to Toronto to set up shop for Rothmans in 1956. His name was Patrick O'Neil-Dunne.

Patrick O'Neil-Dunne
The Irish-born American-educated Mr. O'Neil-Dunne arrived in Toronto more than twenty years after he had first joined Rothmans and more than a decade after he had been demobilized from the RAF.

The 1950s were a time of change in the tobacco business, and no less so for Rothmans. The upmarket British firm had been acquired by the South African newcomer, Mr. Anton Rupert. Aalthough Mr. Rothman remained on the board, there was no question that this was a company under new - and different -  management.

One of the management practices implemented by Patrick O'Neil-Dunn was the hosting of regular training conferences for sales staff. Three of the lectures he prepared for these sessions are now on the trial record - each providing a window onto the knowledge and mindset in 1957.

  • Sales Lecture No. 3 - Filters and Lung Cancer (Exhibit 758-3 and 758-3A)
    This lecture covers the history of filters, and provides unvarnished reports of the conclusions of the American Cancer Society and others.
  • Sales Lecture No. 6 (Exhibit 758-6)
    Use of "themes" to sell cigarettes. ("The health theme. The taste theme. The popularity theme. The high-class theme. The testimonial theme. The competitive Theme. The pleasure theme. The activity theme. The cigarette-properties theme. The sentimental theme.")
  • Sales Lecture No. 9 - Address by the Company's Advertising Agency (Exhibit 758-9)
    This lecture encourages sales staff to remember the the importance of AIDA - Attention-Interest-Desire-Action - in getting people to want to try Rothmans cigarettes
  • Sales Lecture No. 11 - Motivation Research: Cigarettes - their Role and Function (Exhibit 758-11)
    This lecture reviews insight on smoker motivation (cigarettes are an "evil," are habit forming and hard to stop, but are associated with active people).
But it was the following year, in 1958, that Mr. O'Neil-Dunne rocked the boat when he launched a series of advertisements that acknowledged the "health aspects of cigarette smoking." This was the first time that a tobacco company had made such admissions, or had so directly used scientific events to promote its cigarette brands. "The advertisement and his comments hit the industry like a tidal wave."

In 1958 Patrick O'Neil-Dunne
ran ads for Rothmans that acknowledged
cancer risk
(Although the ads are a matter of public record, very little of the background or after-burn has been revealed before this trial. One reason is that Rothmans was not involved in U.S. tobacco trials, and has not had its documentary record exposed on the Legacy web-site.)

Less than two weeks before the ads ran, Mr. O'Neil-Dunne made notes of a conversation with his boss,  Anton Rupert. (Exhibit 784)  “You said you had now confirmed the theory of cigarette brands in three dimensions, namely (a) taste to the extreme right and health to the extreme left, (b) colour psychology and (c) class distinction.” His enthusiasm (or sycophancy) is clear: "This is so penetrating a discovery that we can now conquer the world!"

When the ads were run, beginning in June 1958, the shot was heard around the world. Even Time Magazine profiled the dust-up (Exhibit 20064.65). 

Shortly after, Noel Foley, chair of BAT's Australian subsidiary, wrote to BAT that the actions of "an egocentric moron such as I believe O'Neil-Dunne to be" ..."will, in the short picture, enable him to break into the Canadian market and by the time real damage is done to the industry, he will either have made his pile and retired or perhaps have died, either naturally or violently." (Legacy) 

It may have been this Australian reaction that prompted Mr. O'Neil-Dunne to write his Rothmans colleague in in that country. To Mr. Irish he offer his rationale: (Exhibit 917)

“In London I attended both the open and the secret sessions of the Seventh International Cancer Congress. The official view of the British and United States government public health services (also supported by Russian and Eastern Germany – not to mention a number of smaller countries) is: - 
a) Doctors in these countries are no longer going to argue whether there is or is not a link. They are proceeding on the basis that there is. 
b) Statistically, the link is absolute, 
c) Chemically and biologically, the link has been proved beyond doubt on animals 

d) On the assumption that one cannot stop the human race from smoking, the question now is simply one of what is the medical profession and the tobacco industry going to do about it."

The ads were noticed by the international media, including the New York Times. (Exhibit 536B). Time magazine reported the industry description of "O’Neil-Dunne is like the kid in the gang who punks out." (LegacyAdvertising Age printed the ads, almost word for word (Leg1) and brought the story to the business community. (Leg2 ) 

The US Tobacco Industry Research Council was forced to respond. "The position of this country's cigarette industry is unchanged because the facts have not changed. Scientific evidence simply does not support the theory that there is anything in cigarette smoke known to cause human lung cancer." (Exhibit 536C).

Patrick O'Neil-Dunne rode out criticism over the summer, remaining unapologetic to his employers and colleagues. To his concerned former boss, Sydney Rothman, he wrote a detailed explanation of his decisions. (Exhibit 918) . He spoke with his boss, Mr. Rupert, and sent copies of his notes on the conversation to other executives of the company (Exhibit 919). (In these he acknowledges that the ads had not been cleared with senior management before being released.) He promotes the same strategy to his New Zealand counterpart. (Exhibit 921). 

At the end of the summer, he reflects on the 'pros' and 'cons' of he experience and the business implications (Exhibit 785) but sees the ongoing market battle with BAT as a root problem for the backlash.

"Follow up action ... Go for the B.A.T. and Timothy V. Hartnett" ... I have no evidence in my past experience to show that the right policy towards the BAT is either to remain silent or to offer the other cheek. .. Our experience shows that we have become a successful world business only by fighting the BAT vigorously with no quarter given and no quarter asked."

The testy relationship between Mr. O'Neil-Dunne in Canada and TIRC and BAT is shown in the exchange of letters in the early fall of 1958. (Exhibits 536E  536F536G536H).

It wouldn't be long before Mr. O'Neil-Dunne had laid down arms and abandoned the approach that had caused such a ruckus. In a November 1958 memo to other executives in the company he climbed down from his former position and acknowledged it had not worked: (Exhibit 924)

"In recent weeks I have been asking myself - what have I done to the Canadian market with my research series? There is no doubt in my mind that they raised our consumer sales from 100 million per month to the level of 150 million per month. They are well spoken of and we have an image of a good, powerful, experienced and clever company... I have a shrewd suspicion that my research series has done the opposite of what I originally intended.

Original intention: stir and scare the market to forge our sales to great heights
Result: Placid market. Confidence in all good filter products.

Rothmans ad
in Globe and Mail, 1959
The educated man reasons as follows – 'Rothmans would not have admitted the statistical link between smoking and cancer unless they knew the answer. If they know the answer and their products are free from carcinogens, so does the Imperial or any good cigarette manufacturer. Therefore, any good filter product suits me…' Thus, contrary to what I expected, the market is placid and we are back to bashing advertising to get our share of the trade – ever so slowly. 

It wasn't long before the reins in Canada were passed over to John Devlin, a former airman whom Mr. O'Neil-Dunne had recruited as his replacement. Their advertisements had returned to tried and true themes - "the best tobacco money can buy."

Mr. O'Neil-Dunne did not retire until 1972. In the 1960s, BAT traced his peripatetic movements through Chile, Thailand, Singapore, Jordan, Kenya and elsewhere. 

No surprisingly, Mr. O'Neil-Dunne was a gambler. (He wrote a book on roulette and once played a 35-day roulette game.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, his son blogged a tribute: "A visionary, some called him a genius. Reviled by some, admired by many, never one to leave you feeling ambivalent."

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

The documents occasionally require some persistence before being downloaded -- persevere!