Smoke and Mirrors : Big Tobacco on Trial
As an Urban Sketcher, I’ve always been curious about the practice of courtroom sketching. Now that cameras are permitted in much of the US, the profession seems to be dying out.
Luckily for Canadians, the decision here whether to allow photography is decided on a case-by-case basis, and is pretty much reserved for public inquiries with a significant social or humanitarian issue. So, in criminal cases and corporate law, if anyone wants a visual record of events, there is still a need for someone scribbling away with pencil and paper.
Suzanne Côté, recently appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, (standing) and Deborah Glendinning (seated, right). Representing Imperial Tobacco.
I was surprised to learn no special permission is required to sketch. Any member of the public is free to attend and stay as long as they like.
However, no liquids are allowed in the courtroom. This is probably more about spilled coffee than watercolours, but it meant I had to draw in the moment, and paint later.
I ended up spending four days making small sketches in pencil, and taking them back to the studio to assemble into digital collages. These were printed onto Fabriano 140 pound paper and painted in watercolour, allowing the drawing to show through. My typical solution when I can’t paint on the spot.
Cynthia Callard and colleague blogging the proceedings
So, you might ask, how did I choose this particular trial to sketch?
Initially I was interested in a high profile murder case, but thinking it over I decided the killer didn’t need any more publicity.
Fortunately, while asking around about the regulations, I met journalist Cynthia Callard. Cynthia has spent the last three years (250+ days in court) observing a set of class actions brought against cigarette manufacturers Rothmans Benson and Hedges, Imperial Tobacco Ltd., and JTI-Macdonald.
She has collected everything into a detailed day-by-day narrative on her blog: Eye on the Trials.
It makes fascinating reading. It’s hard to tear yourself away from this epic tale of people unable to limit their addictions. To cigarettes on one hand, and to making money on the other.
Simon Potter representing Rothmans Benson and Hedges
At stake is a record breaking $27 billion figure that would pay restitution for anyone in Quebec, going back 50 years, who suffered damage to their health from smoking.
This is only the first of these Canadian suits to come to trial. They were filed in 1998 and have taken 13 years to work their way through the system. Other attempts are underway in various provinces, and will likely proceed no matter what is decided here.
The validity of these suits seems pretty clear. On the face of it, things look pretty dark. The plaintiffs assert that:
- Tobacco companies planned massive advertising campaigns designed to hook people on their products, even after it was understood that cigarettes were dangerous. They knew people would die, yet they carried on making money.
- There is written proof in their own words that instead of choosing to stop killing folks, manufacturers did their best to hide the facts. Including destroying documents containing too much hard truth, and enriching a select group of experts, paid to obfuscate the science for as long as possible.
- Worse than that, manufacturers doubled down, focusing new marketing on teens, setting them up for a lifetime of addiction, planning on making profits at the expense of public health for an entire generation.
To say that version of events describes a failure of corporate citizenship seems to be putting it lightly.
However – I only know this second hand. I’ve come in at the very end of this long affair and I didn’t see any of that evidence myself.
All I was actually able to observe, was the summation by the defence team. And I have to say, they are very convincing speakers.
Here is the tobacco companies version as best as I can recall:
Potter, Pratte and Côté, (studio portraits, from publicity photos)
- Ok, we admit now scientists have proven that smoking is addictive and dangerous. But, we couldn’t have known that back when we started this business.
- The government said Health Canada would take care of spreading the bad news to smokers. So that wasn’t our job – and in fact, we were initially ordered to stay quiet on the subject of risk, so the message would come from reliable sources.
- Also, there are plenty of dangerous products, (like say, motorcycles or ice climbing gear), so that’s why we have a consumer protection act. It wasn’t our decision to give tobacco an exemption under that act – that was the government’s choice. So, it’s democracy to blame, and anyway, if we didn’t sell it, others would.
- Besides, tobacco manufacturers operate under federal license, and as a requirement of that, for years now we have put big, scary, un-missable health warnings on every package – making it very clear you should not buy our products.
- Plus, we don’t do any of those evil ads any more! Haven’t for years. Kids shouldn’t smoke, this is a problem with schools not being strict enough in the 70’s and 80’s, not with us targeting youth.
RBH council Simon Potter argues – why should smokers, who have accepted the risks, be compensated when the risks materialize? People who chose to smoke don’t deserve compensation just as “I don’t deserve compensation because I am overweight.”
I personally felt this argument is tarnished by the uncharitable conclusion it offers. To whit: If you didn’t quit smoking and died from it, it’s your own fault buddy. Everyone else knew, why not you?
Guy Pratte speaking for Imperial Tobacco Ltd
Honestly, I can’t see how the tobacco companies could lose in the short run here. I am just a layman – but it seems, no matter where you fall on the morality of selling tobacco, they are selling a legal product, in a legal way.
Yet – Even if the companies are released from legal responsibility, doesn’t that mean we are all left with the larger questions?
How can our government continue to license the sale of a product that kills people?
How can the shareholders, managers and owners of these companies continue to turn a blind eye to the cost of profit?
If the best defense is that we all agreed in the 70’s that smoking deaths were an acceptable risk – well – how much longer do we have to put up with that poor choice?
Judge Riordan’s final decision will likely take weeks or even months. And after this, there are certain to be appeals. But I am waiting with great interest to see what develops. Is it possible that this is the first step towards a smoke-free Canada?