Tobacco executives take stand Testimony denies danger of smoking

November 08, 1993|By Martin Merzer | Martin Merzer,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- "Smoking is not addictive -- anyone can quit smoking any time they want. Smoking does not conclusively cause cancer or any other illness. Tobacco companies do not advertise to entice new smokers."

That is the sworn testimony of four top executives of American tobacco companies -- compelled by a Florida attorney to answer tough questions about smoking.

Their statements came during depositions for a $5 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of current and former flight attendants who claim they were harmed by breathing cigarette smoke on airline flights before smoking was banned on domestic flights.

Most had never before answered such questions under oath. According to their lengthy, often acrimonious depositions, taken during the past month:

Two do not smoke; one who does smoke tried twice to stop. None would warn his children about cigarettes. Most have not discussed the health hazards of tobacco with their families.

William Campbell, president of Philip Morris Inc., implied his conscience would be clear if his child smoked and then died from lung cancer "if she is fully informed."

They all hewed to the industry line, often using identical words: Some "risks" may exist, but a "causal" relationship between cigarette smoking and cancer has never been proved.

None would give an inch, even when reminded by their interrogator that 50,000 scientific studies have documented a connection between smoking and sickness. Federal officials attribute 435,000 American deaths annually to smoking and 52,000 deaths to the effects of other people's smoke.

But one of the company officials broke into tears when confronted by a Holocaust analogy; he was asked if his denials were comparable to those of people who deny the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews.

All of the executives were accompanied by a phalanx of lawyers. At times, nearly a dozen people on the tobacco payroll were in the deposition room in New York City. During 17 hours of testimony, no one lit a cigarette or expressed a desire to.

All who were asked said they would refuse to testify if a newspaper reporter were present. "We do not comment . . . to outside parties," said Martin Orlowsky, executive vice president-marketing of Lorillard Tobacco Co.

Until now, the chieftains of the U.S. tobacco industry have been essentially invisible to the public -- cloaked by spokesmen, lobbyists and lawyers.

But after a nine-month legal battle, a Miami attorney, Stanley Rosenblatt, made four of them raise their right hands and swear to tell the truth. Several other industry figures also were deposed, and additional depositions are scheduled in coming weeks.

Although several liability actions against the tobacco industry achieved initial victories, no case has survived the appeals process.

Here are excerpts obtained last week by the Miami Herald:

William Campbell is president and chief executive officer of Philip Morris Inc., which produces Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Benson & Hedges, Merit, Parliament and other cigarettes.

Marlboro is the top-selling U.S. brand, with 25 percent of the market. It is particularly popular with young smokers.

Mr. Campbell smokes about 10 cigarettes a day. He earned $800,000 last year.

Mr. Rosenblatt: "Is cigarette smoking, is tobacco addictive?"

Mr. Campbell: "No, I do not believe that tobacco smoking is addictive."

Mr. Rosenblatt: "I'm [your teen-age daughter], now 22. My question is, you know, 'Daddy, I want to smoke.' "

Mr. Campbell: "I would tell her, 'Have you assembled all the information that you need to make that decision?' "

Mr. Rosenblatt: "And she says, 'You are my final authority. I have read a lot of conflicting information. I'm confused.' "

Mr. Campbell: "I would -- it's her adult decision in the end. I can't -- "

Mr. Rosenblatt: "Now I know why you contributed to the American Civil Liberties Union. You're a liberal. Just let her die."

Mr. Campbell: "If she is fully informed."

Andrew Tisch

Andrew Tisch, 44, is chairman and chief executive officer of Lorillard Tobacco Co., which produces Kent, Newport, True and other cigarettes. The company is owned by Loews Corp., a large conglomerate.

Mr. Tisch is the son of Laurence Tisch, chairman of Loews and CBS. Neither of them smokes. Five close relatives are in family-run businesses. None smokes. Mr. Tisch earned $500,000 last year.

Mr. Rosenblatt: " . . . You do buy that maybe cigarette smoking causes cancer, heart disease, emphysema and death. I'm simply asking you, if it turns out that this is true, why sell these billions of cigarettes and contribute to killing people?"

Mr. Tisch: "If it turns out that's true, I will be very upset."

Martin Orlowsky

Martin Orlowsky is executive vice president-marketing of Lorillard. He is a former vice president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which makes Camel, Winston, Salem and other brands.

He began smoking at the age of 18. He twice tried to quit. Now, he smokes one pack a day. His wife quit smoking seven years ago. Mr. Orlowsky earned $323,000 last year.

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