People knew smoking risks decades ago: former tobacco execs

MONTREAL — A retired tobacco spokesman told a historic civil trial Tuesday that his company was already under fire in the 1960s over the potential health risks of smoking.

MONTREAL — A retired tobacco spokesman told a historic civil trial Tuesday that his company was already under fire in the 1960s over the potential health risks of smoking.

Smokers who failed to notice such reports, he said, must have been “blind.”

Michel Descoteaux, who headed Imperial Tobacco’s public-relations department for more than two decades, said there was no point trying to argue against a public and media that wanted to hear one thing: that smoking was bad for you.

Descoteaux was testifying at the start of a landmark class-action suit, the biggest civil trial in Canadian history. It pits Quebec smokers against Canada’s three biggest cigarette companies.

The smokers accuse the tobacco companies of misleading them over the years about the potential danger from cigarettes.

Taking the witness stand, Descoteaux said the evidence the company actually had in the 1960s, gathered by company scientists and researchers, was that there was no link between smoking and public health.

But he testified that the general public and news media dismissed such reports back then and demanded that the company come clean.

“Public opinion was cigarettes were causing all kinds of deaths and the company (made) comments that weren’t in keeping with that,” Descoteaux said.

“You would have had to be blind to see that we had no credibility with the media and it was the same with the smokers and the general public.”

The landmark case, with up to $27 billion at stake, is also considered the biggest class-action suit in Canadian history and is also the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.

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