Tobacco companies claim Ottawa played equal role developing cigarettes

VANCOUVER — In the waning days of the cigarette’s cool cache in the late 1960s, as the dangers of lighting up were becoming more and more apparent, the federal government invested its research dollars into developing “safer” low-tar varieties, say tobacco companies.

VANCOUVER — In the waning days of the cigarette’s cool cache in the late 1960s, as the dangers of lighting up were becoming more and more apparent, the federal government invested its research dollars into developing “safer” low-tar varieties, say tobacco companies.

So when a landmark British Columbia lawsuit seeking repayment for billions of dollars in smoking-related health-care costs goes to court, the federal government should share some of the heat, they argue.

Imperial Tobacco Canada, along with Rothmans, Benson and Hedges and JTI-Macdonald, is seeking to bring Ottawa into the proceedings as a third-party defendant. They claim that decades ago the government worked with them to develop products now known to cause cancer and disease.

“(Low-tar) cigarettes were manufactured at the instigation and with the co-operation of the federal government,” said Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco.

“We think it’s important that the federal government is held responsible for its decision and actions related to light and mild (cigarettes).”

They were handed a partial victory last week when the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that the trial will hear some of the allegations against the federal government when it begins in September 2011. B.C. will be the first of several provinces to go to court against the tobacco companies in similar lawsuits.

In trial documents that have not yet been tested in court, the tobacco companies allege that around 1969, officials with Agriculture Canada at the Delhi Research Station in southwestern Ontario began extensive research and work towards developing strains of tobacco to be used in lower toxicity cigarettes.

It was a time when the link between smoking and disease was starting to gain attention, but not so mainstream a view the government believed the public would butt out en masse. So efforts focused on harm reduction.

Called the “Less Hazardous Cigarette Programme,” its work continued until the late 1980s. Among its goals was to identify and reduce compounds in existing tobacco plants known to be harmful to health, and, to develop new tobacco varieties with a lower tar to nicotine ratio.

Between about 1979 and 1983, a slew of new “safer” tobacco varieties were created, including Nordel, Delgold, Newdel and Candel. While they produced less tar when smoked, they contained much higher levels of nicotine.

After being tested and deemed acceptable by government officials, several varieties were licensed and promoted for use by all tobacco growers in Canada and for use by cigarette manufacturers.

By 1983, the federally developed varieties comprised about 95 per cent of tobacco available to Canadian cigarette manufacturers.

Imperial Tobacco alleges the products were made to satisfy a public demand for light and mild products, and that nearly all tobacco consumed in B.C. at that time was manufactured from these varieties.

“Imperial Tobacco Canada was directed by the federal government to focus its effort, really, on developing lower tar products,” alleged Gagnon.

“Whatever the views consumers had about light and mild back when those products were on the market were really the result of the claims and the information provided by the federal government.”

Calls to Agriculture Canada were referred to Health Canada. Officials said the government will take “appropriate action” after reviewing the court’s ruling, but declined to comment on its historical role while the case is before the courts.

Researchers and health advocates don’t deny the government developed new tobacco varieties, but they argue it did so in good faith — believing along with many other health authorities they would cause less harm.

What’s more, they claim big tobacco — with its wealth of resources and vast body of internal researchers — concealed decades-old scientific evidence that showed low-tar cigarettes still caused health problems.

“The government, reflecting the scientific view at the time, may have been wrong and maybe even a little inept,” said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Ottawa-based Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.

“But it didn’t take the deliberate actions that the companies did, to take steps that they knew were against the interests of the people who were using the products.”

Callard points to reams of documents released after U.S. tobacco litigation, as evidence of the companies’ tactics.

It wasn’t until 2001 that mainstream science adopted the view low-tar cigarettes did nothing to relieve the burden on public health.

“It took a long time before people realized that what seemed like a good idea didn’t work,” Collard said, referring to the reduction of chemicals in cigarettes. “The reason it didn’t work was known to tobacco companies well ahead of … the federal government.”

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in October also alleges Imperial Tobacco Canada destroyed decades’ worth of scientific research demonstrating the devastating effects of smoking.

“I think (that information) makes it very difficult for companies like Imperial Tobacco to argue that the public was informed, and the government was informed, when they were concealing and destroying these documents,” said Dr. David Hammond, who led the University of Waterloo analysis.

The allegations against the federal government are also a major point of contention in a class action filed by a B.C. resident claiming companies deceived smokers into believing “light” and “mild” cigarettes were less harmful than regular smokes.

This week’s court ruling, opening Ottawa to be held liable, sets a precedent for similar lawsuits proceeding in provincial lawsuits underway in Newfoundland, Quebec and New Brunswick.

B.C. alleges tobacco manufacturers failed to warn consumers of the dangers of smoking, marked light cigarettes as “safe” and targeted children in their advertising and marketing.

Just Posted

Councillors want to represent Red Deer at AUMA

City council approves endorsement

Cannabis smoke raises health concerns

Smoke Free Bylaw returns to Red Deer city council Sept. 4

Avid Penhold climber Catlin Hannah’s death a reminder of the dangers of scrambling

Hannah never returned from his Mount Smuts attempt on Aug. 12.

Children, elderly at risk as smoke from distant fires hangs over parts of B.C.

VANCOUVER — Thick smoke blanketing British Columbia communities far from any flames… Continue reading

WATCH: Medicine River Wildlife Centre opens new playground

The grand opening of the playground was Saturday morning

Police chiefs want new data-sharing treaty with U.S. as privacy questions linger

OTTAWA — Canada’s police chiefs are pressing the Trudeau government to sign… Continue reading

Pope on sex abuse: “We showed no care for the little ones”

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis issued a letter to Catholics around the… Continue reading

Ottawa announces $189M to extend employment insurance for seasonal workers

ESCUMINAC, N.B. — Ottawa has announced $189 million for an employment insurance… Continue reading

Trudeau formally announces he’ll run again in next year’s election

MONTREAL — Justin Trudeau will run again in the 2019 federal election.… Continue reading

Smoke from B.C. wildfires prompts air quality advisories across Western Canada

VANCOUVER — More smoky, hazy air is expected to blanket much of… Continue reading

Anti-pipeline protesters released days before weeklong jail sentences end

MAPLE RIDGE, B.C. — Several pipeline protesters were released from a British… Continue reading

All eyes on Andrew Scheer as Conservative convention set for Halifax

OTTAWA — After a week of internal caucus squabbles, Conservative Leader Andrew… Continue reading

Trump says his White House counsel not a ‘RAT’ like Nixon’s

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — President Donald Trump insisted Sunday that his White House… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month