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Canada anti-tobacco groups say evidence destroyed

MONTREAL, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Canada's largest cigarette makers destroyed scientific studies on the health effects of smoking, which could make it more difficult for Canadians to sue tobacco companies, anti-tobacco groups charged on Tuesday.

At a news conference, the groups gave reporters copies of two letters written in 1992 by Simon Potter, a Montreal lawyer and outside legal counsel for Imperial Tobacco Ltd., which indicated that 60 documents were destroyed.

"These documents that were destroyed suggest that tobacco was causing various cancers and tumors in mice," Eric LeGresley, staff legal counsel for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, told the conference.

Potter's letters were addressed to officials at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., a Louisville, Kentucky, cigarette company, and London-based B.A.T Industries Plc <BATS.L>.

Brown & Williamson and Imperial's parent, Montreal-based Imasco Ltd., <
IMS.TO> are units of B.A.T Industries.

The Canadian Non-Smokers' rights group said it obtained copies of some, but not all, of the studies from the Internet site of Brown & Williamson, which has been sued by anti-tobacco groups in the United States.

The letter from the Imperial lawyer indicated that while the documents were destroyed in Canada, copies may have been kept in other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

The anti-tobacco groups said the destruction of the documents in Canada raised legal and ethical questions that should be examined by a federal inquiry.

"These letters raise the most profound issues about the conduct of lawyers and the conduct of an industry which it appears is engaged in a pretty significant attempt to destroy evidence," said Gar Mahood, head of the Canadian Non-Smokers rights group.

LeGresley said the destruction of such documents could make it more difficult for those suing Canadian tobacco makers to obtain the information they contained.

"That is an effort to get rid of these documents to keep them out of court," he said.

At a separate press conference on Tuesday, Imperial spokesman Michel Descoteaux said the companies destroyed copies of the documents, but not the originals.

"All that we did is that we destroyed documents whose originals are available if needed, elsewhere in the world. It changes nothing. They are neither more or less available," he said.

Last week, three residents of the Canadian province of Quebec filed a class action suit against Imperial, which holds about 68 percent of Canada's domestic cigarette market.

British Columbia is expected to file a lawsuit in the next few weeks to recoup costs to the province's health care system from treating smoking-related illnesses. The suit will be similar to those filed by attorneys general in the U.S., and provincial officials have been reviewing industry documents released in those cases.

Stan Shatenstein, a researcher for the nonsmoker's rights group, said many of the documents Imperial had destroyed were scientific studies relating to the health effects of tobacco and smoking. To provide an example, Shatenstein read from one study entitled "Experimental tumorgenesis in the hamster larynx-the promoting activity of inhaled smoke from cigarettes."

"These data definitely suggest that inhaled tobacco smoke in hamsters enhances the development of precancerous lesions in the larynx, which could be interpreted as a promotion effect. Long-term inhalation experiments demonstrate that tobacco smoke alone will eventually lead to grade 5 lesions," Shatenstein said the report read.

A similar presentation on Potter's letters was to be made at the International Bar Association conference in Vancouver on Tuesday by Thomas Sobol, co-lead counsel for Massachusetts in that state's lawsuit against the U.S. tobacco industry.


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