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Tobacco industry front groups in Canada

On April 27th, 2000, a previously unknown group called the “Association for the Respect of Smokers’ Rights” held a press conference in Montreal to attack federal Health Minister Allan Rock’s plans to provide improved health information on cigarette packs. Association representatives, under heavy questioning by journalists, denied receiving any tobacco industry financial support.

This new Association bears a striking resemblence to the defunct Smokers’ Freedom Society, or SFS. It thus seems like a suitable occasion to take a brief historical look at Canada’s most long-lived tobacco industry front group.

The SFS was founded in 1986, around the time that the Non-Smokers’ Health Act was introduced in federal Parliament. (This would eventually lead to passage of the Tobacco Products Control Act, which came into effect in 1989.)

Here is how Philip Morris, the world’s largest cigarette company, described the circumstances of the Smokers’ Freedom Society’s founding:

In Canada, we orchestrated a national media tour by the U.K. leader of the Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (FOREST), which generated a large amount of favorable media coverage and led to the creation of a Canadian counterpart, Smokers Freedom Society. [p. 5 of report]

The SFS was paid by the Canadian tobacco industry, which provided initial funding of $100,000. (See “Pro-smokers’ group founded with help from tobacco firms,” p. D1, Montreal Gazette, Sept. 4th, 1986.) Nevertheless, the group continued to present itself as a group of disgruntled smokers, concerned about protecting their individual rights. From 1986 to 1994, the SFS carried the bag for the tobacco industry on a number of very significant issues, including the effects of second-hand smoke on the health of non-smokers, the question of whether nicotine is addictive, the need for a tobacco tax rollback, and even the idea that cigarettes should be sold only in plain packaging, to make them less attractive to youth. (How that ties into “smokers’ rights” is anyone’s guess.)

“R.J.R. MacDonald Environmental Tobacco Smoke Survey”

One case stands out in tobacco industry documents uncovered through U.S. litigation: a “study” on second-hand smoke in Ottawa-area offices that the Smokers’ Freedom Society unveiled in June 21, 1988.

The press kit sent out to publicize the results of this study mentions only two organizations: the SFS, which supposedly commissioned the study, and International Technology Corporation of Tennessee, which carried out the tests. Absolutely no mention is made of tobacco industry involvement. Predictably, the study found that levels of second-hand smoke measured in Ottawa buildings were far below levels measured by independent researchers in previous studies.

Previously secret tobacco industry documents show that the SFS acted purely as a mouthpiece in this case: the entire study appears to have been an operation of RJR-Macdonald and its U.S. parent company, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (RJRT).

In June 1987, one year before the study began, Senior Research Chemist Guy B. Oldaker, of R.J. Reynolds, wrote to Jeffrey Labow, head of public relations at RJR-Macdonald in Toronto:

The project is being funded through the Smokers’ Freedoms Society and billing should be directed to them.

  • I have authority to negotiate agreements with International Technology Corporation (IT Corp.) who are expected to collect and analyze 35 samples and to prepare a summary report on test results.
  • The cost for IT Corp.’s services is estimated between $40,000 to $44,000 (U.S.).
  • An organizational meeting among GCI [Government Consultants International, a prominent lobby firm], IT Corp., and other project participants is recommended after IT Corp. has provided me with their cost estimate and sampling schedule.
  • It is estimated that IT Corp.’s summary report would be provided to the Canadian industry within 2 months after IT Corp.’s receipt of a formal agreement for their services.

Two months later, lobby firm GCI sent a memo to RJR-Macdonald and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco on the agenda for an upcoming meeting in Ottawa to discuss the project. Tellingly enough, the memo was entitled “R.J.R. MacDonald Environmental Tobacco Smoke Survey.” The buildings to be tested by the U.S. consultants were to be selected by R.J. Reynolds and GCI, though SFS president Michel Bédard would be sitting in on the meeting.

Chemist Guy Oldaker from R.J. Reynolds continued to work on the project, and to report in detail to his superiors. By January 1988, preparations were well underway for an Ottawa press conference to unveil the “study.” A New York communications firm, Douglas G. Hearle & Associates, had been hired to write the press statements — with a little help from his friends:

Ms. Mary Ward, RJRT Law, and Dr. Guy Oldaker proivded assistance to Douglas G. Hearle & Associates in the preparation of statements to be made to the press regarding results of the survey of ETS conducted in Ottawa. The press conference, which will be given on January 28 in Ottawa, will feature three speakers: Mr. Michel Bedard, President of the Smokers’ Freedom Society, the organization sponsoring the survey; Mr. John Carson of International Technology Corporation, the organization contracted to collect samples and to perform analyses; and Dr. D. J. Ecobichon, Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, McGill University.

In short, the entire study was designed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco of the United States, in consultation with a Tennessee-based consulting firm (that had done previous work for the tobacco industry) and a lobbying firm, GCI; the press conference was scripted by a U.S. public relations firm, taking instruction from an R.J. Reynolds lawyer and an R.J. Reynolds scientist; and the entire event was presented as the unveiling of the results of a scientific study commissioned by a group of disgruntled Canadian smokers. (The paper trail does not explain why the press conference was postponed for several months, but there is no indication that Bédard and the SFS strayed from the RJR plan.)

Front groups are a global phenonemon

So-called smokers’ rights groups that are actually creations of the tobacco industry are in no way a purely Canadian phenomenon. In Europe, Philip Morris cultivated a network of smokers’ groups across the European Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as part of its campaign to block restrictions on smoking in public places. Here’s how Philip Morris described its efforts, in a document entitled “PM EEC Corporate Affairs Agenda for 1991”[See section on Smokers’ Groups, starting p. 5 of this excerpted version.]

The creation of Smokers’ Groups in the European countries revealed itself to be a difficult venture, both because of “cultural” reasons and organization problems. […] Important progress on the way to create a solid basis for credible and lasting Smokers’ Clubs in some markets (Netherlands, Germany, France and Greece) has been made by spotting the individuals likely to be active and by setting up the embryo of these clubs, which can be reality by the end of this year or the beginning of the next.

[Philip Morris] EEC Corp. Aff. Dept. is actively participating to [sic] the organization and the elaboration of contents of the International Smokers’ Rights Conference to be held in Helsinki next October.

Given this history, one of the objectives of the newly founded “Association for the Respect of Smokers’ Rights,” as stated on its website, is of particular interest:

To organize a National Conference and a World Symposium on the respect of smokers’ rights.

Plus ça change…

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