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.