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Tobacco chief admitted smoking is harmful in an internal memo

Lamented future ‘smokeless society’

By SUE MONTGOMERY, The GazetteApril 20, 2012

In the suit against Rothmans Benson &

Photograph by: PIERRE OBENDRAUF GAZETTE FILE , The Gazette

The former president of Imperial Tobacco Limited admitted in a confidential internal document that it is an unrefuted and accepted fact that smoking is a serious health issue – but a few months later told a federal legislative committee that there is not proof that tobacco causes disease.

In a 1987 memo, Jean-Louis Mercier, along with Wilmat Tennyson, Imperial’s marketing man at the time, conceded that the tobacco industry had lost the battle “on four critical fronts”: health, social cost, social acceptance and secondhand smoke. The memo concluded the industry should shift the blame to the federal government.

Testifying Thursday at the trial in which Quebec smokers are claiming C$27 billion in damages from Canada’s big three tobacco companies, Mercier repeated that the government, not the tobacco companies, was at fault.

“Personally, I said that if it’s true that it kills 32,000 people a year, I don’t understand why we sell cigarettes,” Mercier said in a large courtroom filled with lawyers on the top floor of Montreal’s courthouse. “Why does the government permit it?

“It should have taken the leadership.”

Mercier also noted that the government, which has made billions of dollars over the years from tobacco sales tax, should have put some of that money into researching how the negative effects of smoking could be reduced.

The tobacco industry lost the health debate, the memo says, because it was “clearly constrained by the basic flaw that it could not argue smoking is good for you.”

It was also hamstrung by the fear of liability and handcuffed by its own lawyers.

“Smoking is a serious health hazard; it is an accepted fact and there is no longer any possibility of refutation,” the memo says.

But according to the transcripts from the legislative committee on Bill C-204 to regulate smoking in the federal workplace and common carriers, Mercier, just months after writing his internal memo, denied smoking caused disease.

“Our views are that, in the context of the current scientific knowledge, these diseases are most likely caused by the interaction of many factors,” he told the committee. “The role, if any, that tobacco or smoking plays in the initiation and the development of these diseases is still very uncertain.”

The transcripts weren’t presented in court, but The Gazette obtained a copy.

The memo also says that the industry, through inaction and apathy, has been “shouldering the entire burden of guilt” and should shift the onus onto government.

“If it is too late to change public perception, the target of the wrath can be changed and this can be done relatively easily and quickly,” the memo says. “The blood is not on the hands of manufacturers engaged in a legitimate endeavour.”

The memo ends in a deflated tone, noting that neither the public nor government has any confidence in the tobacco industry.

“We will continue to stumble along, a sunset industry, heading for a smokeless society.”

The trial, which began in March and is expected to last at least two years, involves about two million Quebec smokers and is the largest claim in Canadian history.

The plaintiffs allege the cigarette industry made and sold a product it knew was dangerous.

The companies – Rothmans Benson & Hedges, JTI Mac-Donald and Imperial – deny the allegations.

To see if you can join the suit, go to


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