Australia: epidemiology classes, shredding, and calls to “the garbageman”: a day in the life of tobacco folk
Tobacco control advocates who are sick of people in high places manipulating and distorting the truth, and then hiding behind “spin doctors” or others who try to cover up their actions, may be a little surprised to find just who they can now number among their friends. The latest recruits to this discerning person’s sick bay include John Basil William St Vincent Welch, who in another age might have been the hero of a Victorian cautionary tale for children, but is actually the former chief executive officer of the Tobacco Institute of Australia (TIA).
Earlier this year, Mr Welch testified in a court hearing held as part of the US government’s anti-racketeering litigation against tobacco companies. Now a self employed industrial relations consultant, Mr Welch has followed a varied career path. He worked for Nestlé, a metal trades organisation, the industrial secretariat of the Australian oil industry, and even the Australian Medical Association, before joining TIA in January 1991. He served there until the end of April the following year, but that relatively short time was a busy one. Among the topics he had to deal with, constantly liaising with the heads of the member tobacco companies, their lawyers and public affairs people, was the burgeoning issue of passive smoking, which was rightly perceived by the tobacco industry as a major threat to its future.
Perhaps this daily liaison, especially involving policies that Mr Welch may have been instructed to handle in a significantly different way than comparable policies he encountered in his previous jobs, contributed to some disillusionment. Take document retention, for example. Quizzed by lawyers for the US government about TIA’s policy, Welch said, “The document retention policy was two-fold. First, when we were in receipt of documents that were potentially damaging to the industry and/or the member companies, once they’d been read they were to be destroyed. Second, where there were documents that were favourable to the industry’s position, and not potentially damaging, once having been read, to retain them.”
What was the purpose of the policy? “At the time that I was the TIA’s CEO, there was a great deal of pressure on the industry from anti-smoking organisations and concerns about lawsuits. The primary purpose of the [policy] was to keep documents that were potentially damaging to the member companies or the TIA out of litigation and out of the hands of those that could use the information to attack the industry. The view was, why leave a loaded gun on the table that could be used against you? The [policy] was primarily a document destruction policy designed to make sure that potential ‘guns’ were destroyed. The name ‘Document Retention Policy’ was a misnomer. It’s purpose was to minimise the TIA library.”
By contrast, he said later, document retention policy at the Australian Medical Association had been to keep everything, as had been the policy at the oil industry secretariat. But at TIA, destruction seems to have been commonplace. “Some documents from the member companies would explicitly say ‘read and destroy’, so those would simply be shredded after reading. All drafts of correspondence and documents were destroyed… There also would be occasions where I would get instructions from a member company to determine whether the TIA possessed a certain document, and if so, to destroy it.” The primary factor in determining whether or not a specific document should be destroyed was whether the document would be damaging in litigation positions, legislative positions, or public affairs positions.
Apart from documents specifically marked “read and destroy”, Mr Welch told the court, the largest class of documents destroyed under the policy were scientific documents considered potentially harmful to the member companies, including those addressing whether or not smoking or passive smoking caused disease, and whether or not nicotine was addictive. Interestingly, the scientific reports or studies that were destroyed, apart from internal company documents, included external, public documents available outside the confines of the member companies, but often these had sensitive notations or handwritten notes on them that were considered potentially dangerous, therefore requiring destruction. In addition, it was considered imprudent for TIA to be in possession of potentially dangerous documents.
Mr Welch confirmed not only that most of the scientific documents that were destroyed came from overseas affiliates or parent companies of TIA’s members, but also that correspondence bearing instructions “read and destroy” was received frequently. “There were two shredders in the office and as you received mail it would frequently be shredded after being read and/or circulated in-house… Documents were destroyed on a daily basis.” So we have a picture of busy shredders earning their keep just about every day; however, some of the industry’s activities were more creative, such as tobacco industry scientific research.
“The commissioning of certain research was a subject of monthly TIA meetings that included each of the member companies.” But scientists from member companies did not attend monthly TIA meetings. Why? “The basis for commissioning the scientific studies discussed at TIA meetings was not science, it was litigation, legislation, or public affairs concerns. Whenever any scientific report was published that was negative for the industry, it was standard practice that the member companies would immediately seek to hire a scientist who would do research or a study that would produce a result that was favourable to the industry. If the anti-industry research said ‘white’ the member companies would contract for a report that said ‘black.’”
Asked to elaborate on the choice of scientists, Mr Welch explained that discussions would be held as to the desired outcomes, and what research result would be beneficial to the industry. Then the companies would talk about whether they knew a scientist or scientists who could be counted upon to produce the result desired by the industry: “Why would a company fund research that confirmed a bad result?”
As he had already said he was not a scientist, Mr Welch was asked at this stage whether he had received any scientific training on smoking and health issues while at the TIA. It turned out that Glenn Eggleton, a solicitor for one of the tobacco industry’s law firms, Clayton Utz, taught a mini-course on epidemiology to certain members of the TIA. Mr Welch had attended such a course one morning a week for a number of weeks. Those attending were given materials as part of the course, but were always required to return the materials to Mr Eggleton, not being permitted to take them outside the room. Did he find this requirement unusual? “Yes. However, it was consistent with the member companies’ concerns regarding the dissemination of potentially damaging documents.”
Meanwhile, even more unusual activities were afoot to protect the industry, which was under increasing pressure from potential litigation and by anti-smoking organisations. “The flip side of destroying our own documents was to try to acquire documents held by the anti-smoking organisations.” How did TIA do that? “As the anti-smoking organisations were not as careful as the industry about getting rid of documents, the TIA paid individuals to go through the dumpsters and rubbish of antismoking organisations in order to find any potentially relevant documents relating to their plans or their funding.” TIA employees themselves did not go through the anti-smoking trash, but contracted with a private inquiry agent, Winston Gregory & Associates, who employed a number of individuals who would go through the anti-smoking organisations’ garbage. “Mr Michael Rigo was one such person—Mr Rigo was nicknamed ‘the garbageman’.” The organisations included the New South Wales Cancer Council and the Heart Foundation.
During Mr Welch’s time at TIA, member companies included WD & HO Wills, the Australian subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT). The activities revealed in Welch’s testimony were clearly known to senior officers of the member companies, yet BAT Australia’s social report for 2003/4 loftily proclaimed, “The principle of Good Corporate Conduct is the basis on which all our businesses should be managed. Business success brings with it an obligation for high standards of behaviour and integrity in everything we do and wherever we operate. These standards should not be compromised for the sake of results.”
Mr Welch, at least, seemed to notice the discrepancy between theory and practice, and became disillusioned. Thus, when asked why he voluntarily testified before the US court, he replied, “As I said before, I am sick of people in high places manipulating and distorting the truth, and then hiding behind ‘spin doctors’ or others who try to cover up their actions. There was a document retention policy and its purpose was to keep damaging documents out of the courts and out of the public. When the United States department of justice asked me to testify about it, I agreed.”