Former Scientist at RJR Testifies for the Defense
A former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco scientist took the witness stand Monday as cigarette makers opened their defense against U.S. government charges that the industry conspired to hide the dangers of smoking.
Tobacco lawyers called recently retired Reynolds scientist David Townsend as the industry’s first witness, aiming to prove that the company had made its best effort to design and sell less-harmful cigarettes and to dispel claims that the industry manipulated the nicotine levels in cigarettes.
“Even up to my retirement [in January], Reynolds continued to work on general [tar] reduction,” Townsend said in pre-written testimony filed with the court.
Townsend’s appearance came about a week after the government wrapped up the main part of its case before U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler.
Justice Department lawyers spent more than four months calling dozens of witnesses, trying to prove that the industry conspired to mislead the public for decades about the dangers of smoking.
But it is uncertain whether the government will be able to pursue the $280-billion financial penalty it has sought. Last month a federal appeals court panel said the government could not use civil racketeering laws to seek disgorgement of past profits.
The Justice Department has asked the full appeals court to reconsider the decision.
Targeted in the government’s lawsuit, filed in 1999, are Altria Group Inc. and its Philip Morris unit; Loews Corp.’s Lorillard Tobacco unit, which has a tracking stock, Carolina Group; Vector Group Ltd.’s Liggett Group; Reynolds American Inc.’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and British American Tobacco unit British American Tobacco Investments Ltd.
The tobacco companies deny they illegally conspired to promote smoking and say the government has no grounds to pursue them after they drastically overhauled marketing practices as part of the 1998 settlement with state attorneys general.
Townsend’s pre-written testimony went through a long list of research Reynolds had undertaken over the years to try to reduce the amount of tar in cigarettes and to identify and eliminate specific harmful chemicals.
But a Justice Department lawyer attacked Townsend’s credibility, showing the judge documents indicating Townsend had testified in defense of Reynolds more than 20 times in sick-smoker cases and suggesting that the testimony may have helped him win a big promotion.
Joel Schwartz of the Justice Department highlighted three instances in which colleagues praised Townsend for his talent as a pro-tobacco witness as part of recommendations that helped him win a 1995 promotion to “senior principle scientist” at Reynolds.
Townsend acknowledged that his bonus -- which reached about $230,000 one year -- was partly based on Reynolds’ market share and the sales of key cigarette brands such as Camel and Salem cigarettes.
But Townsend denied that his bonuses had affected his testimony in court. He said appearing in sick-smoker cases was only a small part of his job and did not factor into the promotion.
“It’s something I volunteered to do,” Townsend said.
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