Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Day 188: Agriculture Canada's "Yes Man"

The Montreal tobacco trials resumed this morning with a commitment from Imperial Tobacco's lawyer, Valerie Dyer, to speed things up a bit. And indeed, she did. It was an activity-packed day, if not an action-packed one, as she quickly put document after document on the trial record.

I think a couple of hundred documents were filed over the past two days. They flew by so quickly, that it is hard to be sure how many - but eventually you can find them as the exhibits which follow #20783.

Many of these records from government archives will be of interest to those who care about public health policy or public administration. The tobacco companies which are defendants in these lawsuits can be credited, as awkward as it might seem, for assembling this large set of documents related to federal actions on tobacco, and for putting them into the public domain.

This material (including the records which supported the expert opinion of Robert John Perrins) does more than provide the basis for a Masters thesis or three. It also provides us with an object lesson of how ill-advised it is to put one government department in charge of the competing responsibilities of protecting public health and protecting the farm economy.

Well, the documents might tell a cautionary tale - but today's witness did not. Mr. Marks reviewed decades of government actions - some reversing previous ones - without once suggesting that any mistakes had been made.

The Less Hazardous Cigarette Program

This was the second and final day on the witness stand for the biologist who once headed Agriculture Canada's tobacco unit, Mr. C. Frank Marks. As he had done yesterday, Mr. Marks gave mostly one-word answers to the questions put to him. As she had done yesterday, Imperial Tobacco's counsel, Ms.Valerie Dyer, asked him questions that invited no more than a simple "yes" or "no".  (I am told that yesterday's transcript shows Mr. Mark answering "yes" to about 400 questions).

Mr. Marks nodded along as she showed him documents of the the workplan, budget and results of the department's efforts to increase the nicotine level in the tobacco plants grown in Canada. (Nine researchers and a budget of over $1 million in 1977!).

He agreed with her suggestions that - even after Health Canada had withdrawn from the program in 1978 -- the program continued to be guided by health goals. "As far as we were concerned, once Health and Welfare was out of it, we wanted to include the health aspects in our overall program."

But was the goal of the program to reduce tar or to increase nicotine?  Back and forth during the day, the understanding of Agriculture Canada's scientists was variously shown as one aiming to reduce the amount of tar for a given amount of nicotine, or one to ensure that an amount of nicotine was present, even if tar was reduced.

Mr. Marks explained that the "Less Hazardous Cigarette" program was based on "knowing that the filtration process was going to take out a certain amount of tar and also nicotine at the same time. The impetus for going to a higher nicotine type of tobacco was so that when you did filter the nicotine with the tar there was enough nicotine to satisfy the smokers."

A stiffly worded diplomatic note sent from officials at Health Canada made it clear that there were differing views between Mr. Marks and his colleagues in the other department about whether the organizing principle of the approach was nicotine or tar. (Exhibits 20862, 20863, 20864). But today Mr. Marks shared no insights into the importance of the diverging of opinions of the two departmental leads. He merely agreed with Ms. Dyer that the communications had not been continued.

The breeding program

Have almost two months passed since Mr. Gaetan Duplessis explained - at great detail - the breeding program that resulted in the registration of the various new Canadian tobacco varieties - Nordel, Delliot, Candel, Delgold, etc.? My how time flies.

These efforts were again discussed today. Mr. Marks' testimony was somewhat different than Mr. Duplessis, in that he stressed that the cultivars were not only aimed at changing nicotine levels, but were also aimed at increasing the farmers' yields and profitability.

He also put a greater emphasis on the engagement of stakeholders in the process of deciding on which cultivars would be promoted. He said that the department did not unilaterally register a new variety, and only moved forward with the support of stakeholders - growers, the companies and provincial government committees.

Tobacco varieties developed by Agriculture Canada
Exhibit 20875.1
An agreeable partnership

The documents shown today show a high level of collaboration and mutual support among Agriculture Canada, tobacco farmers and the industry.

With farmers, the department traveled to promote overseas tobacco sales (Exhibit 20887). With the industry, they participated in the trade organizations like CORESTA (Exhibit 20888.1)

Sometimes they seemed to go the extra mile to help each other out. When Mr. Marks was not permitted, by policy, to travel to Taiwan, a way was found to allow his comments to be shared in spite of this policy. They were printed on the farmers' letterhead, and circulated in his absence to ensure that the opportunity was not lost. (Exhibit 20855.1, 20855.2).

The alignment of government research priorities with those of growers and manufacturers was set through the Canadian Tobacco Research Foundation, on which all of the stakeholders had an advisory role. Nonetheless, Mr. Marks agreeably said "no" to Ms. Dyer's inquiries about whether the companies directed the research, or contracted government employees tpo do the work.

"It was a good relationship," said Mr. Marks in one of his longer replies. "They didn’t tell us how and we didn’t ask them what research needed to be done. We took their thoughts and their suggestions into consideration, but it was us at the research station level that made decisions as to what research would be done."

The end of an era

By the end of the 1990s, however, the bloom was off the rose, or at least off the nicotine plant. The Delhi Research Station was transferred to the Canadian Tobacco Research Foundation and Agriculture Canada withdrew from the industry association, CORESTA. (Exhibit 20889). Soon, all government investment in tobacco cultivation was ended. (Exhibit 20789)

Mr. Marks explained the change: "It was a conflict of interest from the government's overall point of view, since Health and Welfare was promoting anti-smoking.... For Agriculture Canada to continue its support was no longer considered to be a good approach. Leaving CORESTA was the first move to remove ourselves from tobacco activities."

A line in "The Sands"

Shortly after lunch time, Ms. Dyer asked her last questions of Mr. Marks. It was a very different question than has been asked of any other witness.

She removed her glasses and leaned forward with her elbows on the plexiglass lectern which is favoured by her team. She told Mr. Marks that "one of the questions that is before the judge ... is did the respondents "deliberately not use parts of the plant that have such low rates of nicotine that they would have put an end to the dependence of a large percentage of smokers'.” 

She asked him to comment on the issue. (The plaintiffs, despite some derisive comments yesterday about the leadingness of Ms. Dyer's questions, made not a single objection over the past two days -- not even to this question!)

Mr. Marks did not give a particularly direct reply. 

He said that the lower leaves of the plant - "the sands" - had a very low level of nicotine. "They would be used as a filler tobacco to get a the nicotine levels that they wanted for light cigarettes or regular cigarettes. Quite often growers would not bother harvesting because they were so low in value they were not worth it." 

Ms. Dyer asked him to confirm that these lower leaves were not sent to the auction house, and that it was the farmers' marketing board which controlled the sale of tobacco crops. 

A few housekeeping issues later, and Ms. Dyer said she had finished with the witness. A whole day earlier than first predicted.

The new boy

Andrew Cleland
There have been many new faces in front of the bar that separates lawyers from the rest of us. Usually, they belong to the large teams of defence lawyers.

This week it was the plaintiffs' team which included a new team member. Yesterday, Mr. Andrew Cleland was introduced to Justice Riordan as a "first round draft pick" of the plaintiffs firm, Trudel-Johnston. Today it was his job to begin the cross examination of Mr. Marks.

Mr. Cleland centred his few short questions around a television interview given by Mr. Marks in March 1997. (It was a very sensitive month in tobacco policy - the federal government's new tobacco law was hanging in limbo in the Senate).

My good friends at the Non-Smokers' Rights Association had uncovered Agriculture Canada's work to develop higher nicotine tobacco varieties and Mr. Marks was providing the government's response to the disclosure.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Cleland wanted to know whether the statements made by Mr. Marks on that occasion were correct. Was it true, as he said, that "there's not necessarily a straight line connection between nicotine level in the leaf which the farmer sells and in the nicotine level in the cigarettes. It depends on how the manufacturers blend the different leaf types in order to come up with a product they want to sell on the marketplace."

"Yes," said Mr. Marks.

And was it true, as he said, that what happens to the tobacco is up to the manufacturer and that the department was "not involved in that aspect at all." 

Mr. Marks continued his agreeable testimony. "Yes" he said again.

Mr. Bruce Johnston had his own short round of questions that he wanted a "yes" answer to.

"Was clear to you that tobacco growing was all about nicotine?" "Yes."
"That people smoke for nicotine?" "Yes."
"Was it clear to everyone you worked with?" "Yes."
"Including the manufacturers?" "Yes."

And as for those low-nicotine "sands" leaves  - would there be anything that prevented the industry from making cigarettes from those leaves? 
"If it wanted to, it could use any part of the tobacco plant."

The man who succeeded Mr. Marks as director of the Delhi Research Station, Mr. Wade Johnson, will testify tomorrow.