Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Day 180: A wrinkle in time

It was about two minutes into the introduction of Mr. Jeffery Gentry, that I realized that JTI-Macdonald's third witness at the Montreal Tobacco was another "star" scientiific witness.

My first clue that JTI was trying to convert this "fact witness" into a de-facto expert in tobacco science was when Guy Pratte drew attention to the 4.0 grade point average that Mr. Gentry earned over the course of his PhD studies in analytical chemistry. (Seriously! Who puts these things in their CV? Exhibit 40353).

Mr. Pratte drew attention to Mr. Gentry's fast rise up the corporate ladder - from a young chemist in 1986 to his present perch as Executive Vice President - Operations of RJR Tobacco and also the man in charge of "all of research and development" for America's second largest tobacco company. (Curiously, Mr. Gentry's cross appointment as Executive Vice President of Reynolds American is missing from his CV.)

Jeffery Gentry
We have seen this act before. Mr. Gentry is, to use a Quebec expression, the homologue of Mr. Graham Read, the head of BAT's science operations who testified for Imperial Tobacco earlier this fall.

Both men flew in from Headquarters to shine the spotlight on the depth and breadth of their company's commitment to finding a safer cigarette. Both men deliver their spiel in smooth and seemless style. Both men seem to reflect a archetype of their respective countries. If you don't like the posh Englishman, then maybe you will like the snappy and athletic-looking Yank.

Both men are highly skilled witnesses who are the scientific face of their employer when it is hauled before the courts. In this trial, obviously, and also in US litigation, including the case before Justice Gladys Kessler. (You can get a flavour of Mr. Gentry's style and views from his written and oral testimony at that trial.)

The message from headquarters

Although Mr. Pratte had time only to take his witness through half of the planned testimony, it is already clear that the core message of these two scientists coincide. Their company (fill in the blank - RJR or BAT) has been at the forefront of tobacco research, has shared its knowledge openly, has tried exhaustively to find ways to make its products less harmful, has chosen to focus on the overall reduction of harmful compounds instead of focusing on specific chemicals and has at all times followed the scientific recommendations of the public health community.

(Perhaps it is not surprising that they would bring the same message, given that their work is guided by the interests of the same shareholders. A decade ago, RJReynolds merged with Brown and Williamson, with Reynolds American becoming the largest shareholder of the holding company, Reynolds American. In employment terms, Mr. Read and Mr. Gentry are first cousins.)

A dissected Premier cigarette
One notable difference between the presentations of the two men is that whereas BAT never put any reduced risk products on the market, RJR twice launched cigarettes that were designed to be less hazardous.

Mr. Gentry was introduced to the court as one of the men who was behind the development of both the Premier and Eclipse "heat not burn" cigarettes, to which he referred briefly today. "There were three goals - to reduce smoke chemistry, to reduce biological activity, to reduce environmental tobacco smoke."

Mr. Gentry is clearly used to explaining science to non-scientists. He likened the benefit of reducing all harmful compounds instead of specific ones to the task of eliminating red marbles from a table with mixed colours. "You can pick out the red ones – that is selective reduction. But if you wipe half of all the marbles away, half of the red ones would go, and so would the others you don't want." 

Like a trained communicator, he hitched his key message on the relative benefits of "general reduction" to his answers to many and varied questions.

On the other hand, Mr. Pratte seemed determined to give a very highly detailed presentation of RJR's research past. One after another, a seemingly endless series of scientific reports were shown on screen as Mr. Pratte drew attention to the values of specific findings. The session had only started at noon, but it soon felt like we had put in a full day.

For the first time in the trial, Philippe Trudel proffered a white flag. He extended an offer to Mr. Pratte that in return for speeding things up he would make three admissions. ("That all evidence was available to RJR-Macdonald, that all scientific knowledge was accessible to RJR-Macdonald and that RJR-Macdonald routinely used reports produced by RJR Tobacco.")  "That way we can save three days off the trial."

Mr. Pratte did not bite.

A while later, Justice Riordan also protested at the level of detail.

"I am not here to waste your time," Mr. Pratte assured him. "I want the occasion to persuade you that from the beginning we did everything we could to make our products safer ... that we did everything that was reasonable to make these products as safe as possible acknowledging that they could never be safe." 

(In this exchange, Mr. Pratte said that one of the common questions inherited by this trial was "that the defendants did not do enough to develop a safer product." This provoked more than a few surprised looks. Last month the 8 common questions were reduced to 7, but none of them, listed at the bottom of the Post of October 7th, are phrased in this way.)

A few wrinkles in time 

When it comes to JTI-Macdonald, it's hard to know the players even with a handbook.

Over the last half of the 20th century - the time period relevant to this trial -- the company changed ownership twice. The first time was in 1974, when RJReynolds purchased the Macdonald Tobacco Company and turned it into RJR-Macdonald Inc. The second time was in 1999, when Japan Tobacco purchased all of the international operations of RJReynolds. That was when the company became known as JTI-Macdonald.

Is it relevant to the trial what RJReynolds did before it acquired the Canadian operation? Or what it did after it sold it off?  Philippe Trudel did not seem to think so, but he could not persuade Justice Riordan to intervene. Mr. Pratte received the same long leash that had been extended to BAT's counsel during Mr. Read's testimony.

How it will weave together remains a mystery.  Did Macdonald Tobacco ignore health issues in the 1960s as JTIM's first witness, Peter Gage, testified last year?  Or was it working hard to identify and reduce the harms in cigarette smoke, as Mr. Gentry testified today? What difference does the 1974 purchase make to responsibility for prior events?

Mr. Gentry's testimony continues Wednesday and Thursday. Next week this court is not sitting, but another hearing related to the trial will be taking place before Justice Mongeon.