Canada tobacco executives make rare admission of risk
OTTAWA, June 8 (Reuters) - Executives of Canada's tobacco companies made rare public admissions of the health risks of smoking on Thursday.
In testimony to a Canadian Senate committee, executives of the three major companies either spoke of increased risks of tobacco use or said directly that it can cause cancer and other lung diseases.
Such remarks are sensitive because of the possibility that they could boomerang against the companies in the form of lawsuits.
``I know this is sort of the ongoing debate where you try to get me to say something that the lawyers tell me not to say,'' Imperial Tobacco Ltd. president Bob Bexon told the senators.
British American Tobacco (quote from Yahoo! UK & Ireland: BATS.L) of Britain owns Imperial.
But he did concede: ``On the weight of the evidence that's before us today, we would agree that cigarette smoking causes disease in some people.''
He added: ``I think we all know that there are significant risks of taking on tobacco use.''
Imperial controls 69 percent of Canada's tobacco market. The No. 2 and No. 3 makers would not discuss causes, despite government warnings -- ``Cigarettes cause cancer,'' for instance -- that they all print voluntarily on cigarette packages.
But president and chief executive Michel Poirier of JTI-Macdonald Inc., which is owned by Japan Tobacco Inc. , said: ``We believe that anyone who decides to smoke will incur incremental risks to health on a number of illnesses.''
Rothmans Benson & Hedges president and chief executive John Barnett was the most reluctant, but finally stated: ``We accept the overwhelming evidence that smoking increases the risk of all individuals.''
His is the only firm that has a major U.S. shareholder, Philip Morris Cos. (NYSE:MO - news), which holds 40 percent. The Canadian company Rothmans Inc. (Toronto:ROC.TO - news) holds the rest.
Officials of U.S. tobacco majors have in at least two recent trials denied a scientific link with cancer.
The Canadian officials were speaking during testimony about a Senate bill that would impose a levy of C$1.50 ($1.02) on a carton of cigarettes -- about C$400 million a year -- to fund a foundation aimed at curbing youth smoking.
All three companies supported the foundation, though Rothmans' Barnett said he opposed any new tax.
Imperial's Bexon suggested going even further and making it illegal for kids under 18 to smoke, and he suggested taking away their driver's licenses if they did.