Despite mounting evidence in the 1960s that smoking tobacco was killing more than 30,000 people in Canada every year, Canada’s largest tobacco company made no effort to inform the public about the dangers of its products, a former Imperial Tobacco executive testified Tuesday in the $27-billion class-action lawsuit against the nation’s three largest tobacco companies. Michel Descoteaux, who for years served as Imperial’s official spokesman, said the company’s policy was to claim that there was no scientific evidence linking smoking to disease.
He said that because of this policy the company had “no credibility” with the general public.
“The reputation of the company was very bad,” he said. “Public opinion was that cigarettes were causing all kinds of diseases.”
He added that the company “had no credibility even among smokers.”
He said, however, that he believed that “everything Imperial Tobacco communicated to the public was true.”
When plaintiff lawyer Bruce Johnston asked him if smoking’s lethal results were ever discussed by the company, Descoteaux replied: “I have no recollection of a specific moment when the question of does the product kill or not kill (came up).”
Referring to the statistical evidence of the dangers of smoking, he said that “you could drive a truck through the whole thing anyway.”
Descoteaux said he began working for Imperial Tobacco in 1963 and for the last at least 20 years was its only spokesman. He retired in 2002. He said outside the courtroom that after his retirement he stopped smoking.
He said that during the 1960s and 1970s he was aware of no tobacco company in the world that admitted that smoking caused diseases such as cancer and emphysema.
The class action revolves around when the tobacco companies knew or should have known about the potential dangers of their products and what they did about it.
Descoteaux said his personal beliefs evolved with the policy of the company, and added that if his opinions had been opposed to the company’s position, he would not have lasted long at Imperial Tobacco.
He said the company’s public statements evolved over the years from total denial of a direct relationship between smoking and cancer to admitting that some people contracted some diseases because of smoking. He was unable to pinpoint a date when the company admitted that smoking caused cancer and other diseases.
When Johnston asked him why he didn’t make it his job to find out the truth about smoking and disease, he said: “That’s a good question.”
He added, however, “I got my information from people who were serious and honest.”