In 1954, the Canadian Medical Association issued its first public warnings about the risks of smoking, followed in 1963 by the landmark statement in the House of Commons from Canada’s Minister of National Health and Welfare that smoking was harmful to health. Despite these historic proclamations, there remained considerable uncertainty about the extent of the health risks, whether some products were less harmful than others, and what government measures should be taken to reduce the harm from tobacco. During this period, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco Canada collected high-quality scientific evidence that bore directly on these issues and had the potential to hasten effective public health regulation. However, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco concealed this information and argued that there was a lack of evidence to support government measures such as workplace smoking restrictions and mandatory health warnings on packages.81
For example, in 1990, the president of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council submitted a written objection to government proposals for a new health warning on the risks of second-hand smoke, stating that “we do not accept that there is any credible or reliable evidence to establish that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) constitutes a genuine health hazards to smokers.”82
The destroyed documents indicate that this evidence had already been collected by the industry and was concealed in confidential files.
Efforts to conceal research findings on “low-tar” cigarettes have been particularly damaging to health policy and government regulation. Canadian manufacturers began producing and marketing “lower-tar” cigarettes during the 1960s and 70s as a direct response to growing health concerns among consumers.81
Without the benefit of independent evidence on the potential benefits of “lower-tar” cigarettes, many leading health agencies supported this industry strategy.83
For example, in the 1970s, Health and Welfare officials urged the Canadian manufacturers to reduce tar levels further and to print tar numbers on packages to help guide consumers.81
The destroyed documents indicate that British American Tobacco had collected evidence that cast doubt on the potential health benefits of “low-delivery” products. In vivo studies indicated that human smokers were compensating for “low-tar” cigarettes by smoking them more intensely, while biological testing from Projects Janus and Rio revealed negligible differences in the carcinogenity and mutagenicity of cigarette brands. Without access to this evidence, several decades elapsed before regulators and health agencies reached consensus that “low-tar” products did not reduce risk.81,84
In the meantime, millions of smokers switched to these brands, many under the assumption of reduced harm as an alternative to quitting.84
The legacy of low-tar cigarettes continues today: most Canadian smokers continue to believe that lower-tar cigarettes are less harmful, and misleading tar numbers continue to be printed on Canadian packages.85
Furthermore, many governments and health agencies have yet to abandon the intuitive, but misguided, position that there are public health benefits to further tar reductions. For example, the Canadian Medical Association continues to recommend that “the federal government set ceilings on the content of toxic ingredients such as tar … and lower these ceilings progressively.”86
Had the tobacco industry been forthcoming about the evidence collected about human smoking behaviour and low-tar cigarettes, much of the confusion over these products may have been averted.
Imperial Tobacco’s attempt to destroy the evidence in the 60 documents is consistent with the tobacco industry’s well-documented efforts to undermine science on the risks of smoking and to engineer doubt in the minds of health professionals and consumers.87
Imperial Tobacco Canada and British American Tobacco publicly denied the importance of the health effects that were clearly shown in the 60 destroyed documents. For example, in 1987 — 9 years after the conclusion of Project Janus, which showed the carcinogenicity of tobacco smoke — the chairman of Imperial Tobacco Canada and the chair of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council, Jean-Louis Mercier, testified in front of a House of Commons Legislative Committee, stating that “It is not the position of the industry that tobacco causes any disease. … The role, if any, that tobacco or smoking plays in the initiation and the development of these diseases is still very uncertain.”88
Further, in 1996, Martin Broughton, the chief executive of British American Tobacco stated, “We have not concealed, we do not conceal and we will never conceal. … we have no internal research which proves that smoking causes lung cancer or other diseases or, indeed, that smoking is addictive.”89
Finally, the destruction of documents by Imperial Tobacco Canada has direct implications for industry liability and new litigation that is proceeding in Canada. Canadian courts are currently being asked to consider whether the tobacco industry should be liable for the health care costs attributable to smoking. In the first Canadian trial of its kind, the province of British Columbia has launched health care cost-recovery litigation, claiming that the tobacco companies were part of a conspiracy that engaged in wrongs leading to massive health care costs. In September 2005, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that parent companies — including British American Tobacco —can be cited as defendants and may be found liable. The case is currently proceeding to trial. Seven other provinces have amended their legislation to allow for similar cost-recovery lawsuits, including New Brunswick and Ontario, which have initiated legal action. Ontario recently announced that it is seeking $50 billion in damages for past and ongoing health-care costs linked to tobacco-related illness. Tobacco companies have yet to pay any compensation either to the Canadian government or to their consumers as a result of their actions.