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 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 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 the tobacco companies hired would redact and rewrite 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 to the British American Tobacco empire as does the Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco, one of the trial defendants.
He said 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.
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.
The highest levels of the company struck down attempts to create an accurate record of the meeting, 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 21/2-page document.
Reports began to be vetted and edited, and research would often land on a lawyer's desk before it ever reached Wigand.
The trial is expected to last about two years.
-- The Canadian Press