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Controversy over historians’ role in case involving tobacco industry

Critics ask why they didn’t disclose their work before the Quebec case went to trial.


An ongoing court case in Quebec involving Canada’s three major tobacco companies has brought to light the ties between the industry and some Canadian academics. And it’s the role of historians that is proving to be the most controversial.

“Historical research is of particular importance in this trial,” said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, who has been following the trial since its start.

The tobacco industry, using the same legal strategy it has employed previously in numerous U.S. court cases, is relying on evidence by professional historians to demonstrate that Quebecers were aware of the health risks associated with smoking since the mid-1960s and were aware of tobacco’s addictive qualities and knowingly accepted those risks.

The case involves two class action lawsuits that are being tried together in the Quebec Superior Court. One seeks $5,000 in compensation for each smoker in the province who became addicted to cigarettes. The second asks for compensation of more than $100,000 for each smoker who has suffered lung cancer, emphysema and other tobacco-related illnesses. Almost two million Quebecers could be eligible for compensation and the total amount sought is estimated at more than $27 billion. Both cases were filed in 1998 and the trial got under way in March 2012.

The companies involved are JTI-Macdonald Corp., a subsidiary of Japan Tobacco Group, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., a division of British American Tobacco, and Rothman’s, Benson & Hedges Inc., which is owned by Philip Morris International.

Other scholars affiliated with Canadian and U.S. universities, including epidemiologists, psychiatrists and marketing experts, are also appearing as expert witnesses at the trial on behalf of either the plaintiffs or the tobacco companies. But it’s the role of historians that has stirred the most controversy, partly because of the ethical issues being raised by some of their colleagues in the field.

Among those testifying on behalf of the industry are David Flaherty, professor emeritus at Western University, Robert Perrins, history professor and dean of arts at Acadia University, and Jacques Lacoursière, a popular Quebec historian and author. Several other historians have done research for the companies but were not called to testify, including Jonathan Swainger from the University of Northern British Columbia, José Igartua from Université du Québec à Montréal, and Marc Vallières, a retired professor at Université Laval. In addition, a number of unnamed doctoral students were involved.

Dr. Flaherty, in his expert report, cited numerous media reports throughout the decades that warned about the dangers of smoking. “In my view, Canadians, including Quebecers, were the most warned people in the English-speaking and French-speaking world,” he wrote. Dr. Perrins’ research focused on the measures that governments and public health agencies took to assess and publish information on tobacco’s health risks.

Daniel Robinson, associate professor of history and media studies at Western University, said the research work by publicly funded scholars on behalf of the tobacco industry raises ethical questions, “given the deadly nature of the product” and that governments spend so much money to care for those with tobacco-related illnesses. Dr. Robinson, who is writing a book about cigarette marketing in Canada, also questioned why the historians didn’t disclose the work they did for tobacco companies ahead of the trial.

In a blog post Dr. Robinson wrote earlier this year for the History News Network exposing the ties between big tobacco and academia, he urged his colleagues to show “moral responsibility and ethical leadership” by owning up publicly to what they have done. “Cite your tobacco work on faculty web pages,” he urged. “Tweet about it. Publish your findings.”

Ms. Callard of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada noted that it is common for medical researchers to disclose funding they receive from pharmaceutical companies and other competing interests when publishing in science journals but no similar rules seem to apply to social scientists. “I think the issue is the lack of transparency,” said Ms. Callard, who blogs about the legal proceedings for the Association pour la santé publique du Québec, a provincial health group. (A French version of the blog by Pierre Croteau also runs on this site.)

All but one of the university-affiliated historians contacted by University Affairs either didn’t respond to requests for an interview or declined to comment due to their ongoing involvement in the trial. One agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be identified. He said scholars often undertake research on behalf of private firms without disclosing it, sometimes because of contractual obligations. “Universities are full of those kinds of contracts,” he said. Initially, he felt uneasy about taking work from lawyers for one of the tobacco companies, he said, because his personal sympathies don’t lie with the industry. He decided to do it “because I was quite sure that I could maintain my academic integrity,” he said. “I was interested in the historical problem [the case] poses.”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council said it doesn’t have a policy of disclosure related to research-proposal applications. The Canadian Historical Association declined to comment on the case and on disclosure practices for historians when publishing in academic journals. The association “represents all historians and at this point we do not think that it is our role to intervene in these particular cases of ethics and to take a position on the question of expert witnesses,” said Dominique Marshall, association president and chair of the history department at Carleton University, in an email.

A similar debate has played out in the U.S. in recent years, where professional historians have also played a key role in cigarette companies’ legal defence. Robert Proctor, Stanford University history professor and author of Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, has testified in dozens of lawsuits in the U.S. on behalf of smokers. He also testified in late 2012 for the plaintiffs at the Quebec trial.

In his expert report, Dr. Proctor was highly critical of the research work conducted by Dr. Flaherty, Dr. Perrins and Mr. Lacoursière, saying it contains “significant errors, omissions and methodological flaws.” The three failed to consult the tobacco industry’s internal documents “which reveal a decades-long conspiracy to downplay the hazards of smoking,” he said. They also failed to consider the role of advertising and the industry’s deliberate marketing to children, he wrote. “Tobacco harms were poorly understood by most ordinary Canadians in the 1960s and they still are in certain respects today.”

Dr. Proctor said the legal strategy employed at the Quebec trial mirrors that used by the tobacco industry in the U.S. since the 1980s, which has been to show that the harmful effects of tobacco are “common knowledge.” Some 50 professional historians have provided expert testimony for the cigarette industry over the last 30 years, he noted, and in virtually all cases, the internal documents of the industry were ignored.

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