MONTREAL - A famous former American tobacco executive, whose efforts were chronicled in the Hollywood movie "The Insider," appeared Monday to testify at a landmark Canadian class-action trial.
Dr. Jeffrey Wigand told the trial that as late as the 1990s tobacco companies used to intervene whenever possible to attack the public consensus about the health risks of smoking.
He told the court that employees who worked in research and development were well aware of the effects of smoking, even as the industry sounded a reassuring tone in public.
And when there were concerns about the kind of information making it into official company documents, Wigand said law firms hired by the tobacco companies would redact and re-write research documents to hide the truth about smoking.
Wigand is testifying on behalf of plaintiffs in a landmark $27 billion lawsuit in Quebec, believed to be the biggest class-action suit ever seen in Canada.
The case pits an estimated 1.8 million Quebecers against three major Canadian tobacco manufacturers Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald.
Wigand said he was hired in 1989 by Brown & Williamson, a U.S. firm that belonged the British American Tobacco empire as does the Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco, one of the trial defendants.
He said that within a few months of joining the company, he became aware of the discrepancy between what was discussed internally and the message being conveyed to the public.
While scientists even lower down the corporate ladder than himself were aware of the health risks, Wigand said companies would sow confusion in the public debate.
Wigand said his company was clearly aware of the danger because he was recruited, in part, to create what he described as a less-harmful cigarette.
But he said the public response to health concerns was to shift the blame by discrediting, undermining, criticizing and obfuscating scientific findings.
"It was (about) how to keep the controversy alive, create not the admission of what was known but just to create friction," Wigand said.
"So the controversy was, 'It's not addictive, it doesn't the harm the user,'" Wigand said, "when clearly the companies understood that, when used as intended, it kills the innocent bystander and addicts them in the process."
Wigand is known as the first and only major tobacco executive to turn whistleblower against the industry. His story was the subject of a 1999 film starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino.
Testifying Monday, he said the influence of lawyers increased especially after a meeting of research and development people from across the BAT affiliates, held in Vancouver in 1989.
Attempts to create an accurate record of the meeting were struck down by the highest levels of the company, Wigand said.
He said the minutes were originally a dozen pages long and referred to issues such as "nicotine addiction" and "duty of care" and the redacted version came back as a vague two-and-a-half page document.
By the following year, Wigand and other executives from British American Tobacco affiliates including Montreal-based Imperial were summoned to New York City and told at a meeting that there was concern about the "volume of research documentation spread around" the company.
Wigand said the earlier Vancouver meeting had triggered a new document policy and essentially disrupted the means of doing "science in a meaningful and constructive way."
"This was the escalation of a more robust policy than was in existence when I came to the company," Wigand said. "This was to directly (insert), into all forms of communication between technical scientific people, a lawyer."
The policy did not go over well, Wigand said.
He said the late director of research and development at Imperial, Patrick Dunn, was among those upset.
"Mr. Dunn's reaction was very negative. He felt it was an invasion of his scientific integrity, he felt that he did not need or want a non-scientist telling him how to deal with communications in science and he was quite vocal about it," Wigand said.
Researchers were taught by lawyers how write cautiously in official documents.
Reports began to be vetted and edited, and research would often land on a lawyer's desk before it ever reached Wigand.
"This was basically saying we will determine what research documents you receive," Wigand said. "They were going to restrict the flow of open communication, which is the bedrock of any type of scientific work."
Wigand worked for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson as vice-president for research and development, from 1989 to 1993.
He was let go after a falling out with the CEO at the time over additives to pipe tobacco.
He later gained notoriety by going public with the knowledge that high-ranking executives at the company knew about additives to cigarettes that caused cancer.
He has been called upon by various governments to consult on tobacco-control policies. He has also served as a witness in numerous tobacco-related trials.
Wigand is the latest in a parade of witnesses who have already appeared before the Quebec Superior Court since the class-action trial began last March, with former and current tobacco industry executives among them.
It has taken 13 years to reach the trial phase. The trial stems from two cases that were filed in 1998, certified and consolidated in 2005 by Quebec Superior Court, and there were motions, delays and appeals before it got underway in 2012.
The trial is expected to last about two years.