August 7, 1997 in Nation/World

Lawyers Told Tobacco To Forgo Safety Tests Company Scientists Wanted To Study Cigarette Ingredients

Shankar Vedantam Knight-Ridder
 

Tobacco industry lawyers shot down a proposal by company scientists to test cigarette ingredients for their safety, according to newly released tobacco documents.

Tobacco critics charged Wednesday that the documents showed that lawyers were not only managing tobacco lawsuits, but were actively encouraging companies to ignore the public interest. The industry said the actions were perfectly straightforward and justifiable.

In an October 1986 document released Wednesday in a Florida court, lawyers acting on behalf of the industry said it would be “difficult and complex” to rebut charges that executives acted “in disregard of the safety of consumers.” A footnote reveals why:

“A recent memo by a Lorillard employee (Alex Spears) to Dr. Hayes at RJRT suggests that in 1984 the Committee of Counsel thwarted the industry scientists’ desires to assure the safety of the product by testing ingredients adequately.”

Lorillard makes Newport and Kent cigarettes, and RJRT refers to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which makes Camel, Winston and Salem cigarettes. The Committee of Counsel was a group of lawyers assembled by tobacco companies to provide the industry with legal advice.

“I’ve heard many bad things about lawyers, but the notion that lawyers are coordinating efforts to make sure that their clients do not carry out their responsibilities” is shocking, said Richard Daynard, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a Boston expert on tobacco litigation. “That’s abysmal behavior. You don’t have to learn that in law school.”

According to Daynard, company scientists who suggested that cigarette ingredients be tested for safety were fulfilling their responsibility to protect customers.

The lawyers “weren’t giving advice - they were making decisions,” Daynard said. “They were telling the member companies what to do.”

In a written statement, Peggy Carter, an R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman, asked that the documents not be taken out of context. There was no evidence to support the statement of the Lorillard employee referred to in the memo, she said, and “there clearly were - and are - proprietary issues associated with joint testing of cigarette ingredients.”

“Far from smoking guns, these documents are the legal equivalent of firing blanks,” she said. “After reviewing these documents, there is one clear conclusion: that the attorneys who wrote these documents were addressing legal considerations - considerations that are routinely addressed by lawyers (including plaintiffs lawyers) every day.”

The documents are part of a cache of secret industry documents that were turned over last year by the Liggett Group, the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes. Many of the documents were made public, but some - including those revealed Wednesday - were sealed after industry officials argued that revealing them would violate the attorney-client privilege.

They were unsealed Wednesday because the judge hearing the state of Florida’s case against the industry rejected the claim of privilege.

The tobacco industry is currently battling the Food and Drug Administration over the agency’s right to regulate cigarettes and against a range of lawsuits over health concerns. It recently agreed to pay $368 billion reimburse the costs of treating sick smokers in return for immunity against lawsuits, and to fund smoking-control programs. The settlement has yet to be approved by Congress.


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