Thursday, 19 September 2013

Day 170: If Michael Dixon is right, a whole lot of people are wrong

This morning the plaintiffs in Montreal's Tobacco Trials resumed their cross-examination of BAT's expert witness, Michael Dixon.

Their goal seemed to be to show that Mr. Dixon's views on the benefits of low-tar cigarettes are not only inconsistent with mainstream scientific opinion, they are inconsistent with the stated positions of the defendants. When pushed, the only researchers Mr. Dixon cited to support his view were those with established connections to the tobacco industry.

Pierre Boivin began the day by filing a quick succession of scientific studies that he established mr. Dixon had been familiar with and which were written by "respected experts" but which had, nonetheless, been excluded from his review. He left unstated the implication that an expert to the court should have at least made mention of these alternative views.

Among those presented today were the 2005 conclusions of Stephen Hecht and colleagues that "there would be no decreased risk" associated with low-tar brands (Exhibit 1592), and the 2004 findings of Michael Thun and others that lung cancer cases in the 1980s were as high for those who smoked low-tar brands (Exhibit 1593).

Soon the questioning was handed over to Bruce Johnston.

Is disagreeing with the boss easier when you don't know who she is?

Imperial Tobacco Canada
President, Marie Polet
Mr. Johnston pointed out that Dixon's views were not only at odds with independent scientists, they also contradicted the testimony of his client's President and CEO, Marie Polet.

(Marie Polet and Mr. Dixon both started working for BAT in the early 1980s, but Mr. Dixon seemed entirely unfamiliar with her, and did not even know that she was the current head of Imperial Tobacco.)

Last year, Ms. Polet told this trial "There is no evidence today, Your Honour, that lower tar cigarettes or, indeed, any type of cigarettes are in any way safer than high tar cigarettes; there's absolutely no proven evidence of that at all."

She had testified that for such reasons "it would be very wrong ... to claim any health benefits."

Hearing these views today, Mr. Dixon disagreed with Ms. Polet. He said that a large number of studies ("maybe 30 to 35" in number) had shown "some risk reduction, particularly for lung cancer."

"Whom should the Court believe? You or Madame Polet?"
Mr. Dixon would not bite. "That's for Mr. Justice to answer." 

Peter N. Lee: the backstory

On more than one occasion this week, Mike Dixon has cited the work of Peter Lee and Geoffrey Kabat as support for his view "that there are proven health benefits of lower tar cigarettes."

He is not the first witness to cite this British researcher as a reliable source - but his frequent repetition of the name has finally put this controversial figure in the spotlight. This allowed Mr. Johnston to use Mr. Dixon's presence to put the relationship between BAT and Peter Lee more clearly on the record.

In a long exchange, Mr. Johnston showed Mr. Dixon examples of the private views of Mr. Lee being different than his public positions on whether smoking caused cancer. (See, for example, Exhibits 1273 and 15C.)

Mr. Lee's relationship with BAT was neither casual nor fleeting. A report on BAT-funded research which Mr. Johnston showed to Mike Dixon (Exhibit 1598r) suggests that Mr. Lee was the go-to-boy when BAT wanted a sympathetic scientific publication. About half of the 216 publications commissioned by BAT were written by this one scientist.

Although it was written after this list was prepared, the study cited by Mike Dixon to support his views on low-tar cigarettes was another BAT-commissioned work authored by Lee. (Exhibit 1599)
102 of 216 BAT-funded research studies were
authored by PN Lee. Exhibit 1598r.

The re-direct

During her second opportunity to question her witness, Ms. Glendinning's enthusiasm to get certain answers on the record earned a rebuke from Justice Riordan.  

"When a lawyer examines his or her own witness in a very leading way, it tends to undermine the credibility of the witness or the probative value of the witness' testimony. And I've found your questions very leading with this witness."  He noted that there had been no objections from the plaintiffs, but that "I should have warned you of this earlier."  (To my recollection, this is the first time in this trial that Justice Riordan has made such a comment).

Nonetheless, Ms. Glendinning was able to present Mr. Dixon with the opportunity to criticize the methodologies of those scientists who came to different conclusions than he did, and to comment disparagingly on the credibility of those appointed in 2001 to provide advice to Health Canada on low-tar cigarettes.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the gulf between the views of Mr. Dixon and the public health researchers he disdained came with his answer to a question about the 16% of Canadian smokers who told Statistics Canada surveyors that they thought "light" and "mild" cigarettes were less harmful.

"The claim [by health groups] is that substantial numbers of these smokers believe this allegation. Is that your understanding?
"No, certainly not! 16 per cent is not a substantial number."

Sixteen per cent may not sound that high - but as a percentage of the 6 million Canadians who were smokers in 2001,  it nonetheless represented 1 million Canadians.  Not substantial!?

Justice Riordan's closing question

Despite his protests last week about more discussion about compensation, Justice Riordan returned to the core issue when he put his question to Mr. Dixon at the end of the day. (Justice Riordan seems to prepare in advance for this last round of questions, reading notes from his computer screen as he does so).

He asked Mr. Dixon to re-affirm his expertise in compensation and his definitions of full and partial compensation before asking "Is full compensation a danger that should be associated with the use of low-yield cigarettes? Is there a risk or danger associated with the use of low-yield cigarettes?"

Mr Dixon explained once again that these products were no more harmful, even if there were full compensation, and that with partial compensation "then you are seeing a reduction in exposure which, hopefully, would be reflected ultimately in a risk reduction for certain diseases."

"But it wouldn't eliminate the risk."
"It certainly wouldn't eliminate the risk, no."


The trial has now suspended for two weeks, and will resume on October 7.