Canada’s largest-ever civil trial got underway this week and, with $27 billion at stake, it promises to go on for a couple of years.
Quebec smokers have accused Canada’s three biggest cigarette companies — Imperial, Rothmans and Macdonald — of misleading them over the years about potential dangers from cigarettes.
On the stand this week is retired Imperial Tobacco mouthpiece Michel Descoteaux. The public-relations expert was Imperial’s only spokesman for 20-plus years, but, in spite of that, he was vague on a detail or two that one would expect he would know.
Descoteaux acknowledged that the company’s position on tobacco’s health effects evolved over a 30-year period.
Imperial Tobacco moved — glacially — from saying smoking had no harmful effects to acknowledging that there was some risk after all.
Yet, when asked for details of how and when the company turned the page from steadfast denial to reluctant acceptance, Descoteaux said he didn’t know. Pinning a date on it would, apparently, give the plaintiff too clear a target.
The issue may come up again this week as the trial continues.
How quickly it rises and how hard it bites Descoteaux on his asterisk — surely his disingenuous answer has a qualifying footnote — will depend on how honest and straightforward he appears with other comments he makes on the stand.
So far, he favours euphemisms.
“Public opinion was ‘cigarettes were causing all kinds of deaths,’ ” Descoteaux said under questioning. “The company (made) comments that weren’t in keeping with that” (italics added).
We’re left to assume that the company denied cigarettes were harmful, but to admit that would implicate the company and him personally.
But he did make one thing clear: it wasn’t the tobacco companies’ fault that people smoked. They chose to do so. In fact, they would have to have been “blind” to miss all the reports since the 1960s confirming that smoking was harmful.
So his stance decades ago was that smokers should believe the tobacco companies. But now he blames them for believing them.
It will be a long case not just because of the complexities of determining who is responsible for what, but also the ramifications of any findings. The list of culpable people is far too long.
We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by publisher Tim Shoults, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.