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I'm pleased to announce a repayable contribution of up to 372.5 million dollars to Bombardier to help support its leading research and development in Canada.
LAURA LYNCH: Minister Navdeep Bains announcing more money for Bombardier, even after its plans to lay off thousands, even as its share price has plummeted over the years recovering only recently. This cash loan, far less than the 1 billion dollars the company asked for is touted as an investment. Others see it as a bailout, tinged with pragmatic political considerations. Yet others claim it's an illegal subsidy. We will sort through it all. And after that..
Doctors were asked what cigarette do you smoke? Once again, the brand named most was Camel. More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.
LL: That's a blast from the past. It would probably be pretty difficult to find a doctor today who would recommend cigarettes. But new products such as e-cigarettes are beginning to suck away traditional tobacco revenues. So, big tobacco is jumping in with what it terms less harmful product. After years of dubious claims by the cigarette manufacturers, some are skeptical about their claims that they're selling a healthier alternative. And later..
It was pretty easy to recognize the toxic effects early on because it makes workers insane.
LL: Some who consider themselves slaves to fashion may want to recheck the manufacturer's label on their dresses, pants, and shirts. We know it as viscose or rayon, once thought of as man-made silk. What many don't know is it disturbing history. The making of the material produces fumes that drove factory employees mad. And it's still being made today. I'm Laura Lynch sitting in for Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current.Back To Top »
Canada's Bombardier loans: Should public dollars go to private companies?
Guests: Kristine Owram, Aaron Wudrick, David Moloney
REPORTER: Minister, Brazil’s WTO challenge, are you going to fight it?
FRANCOIS-PHILIPPE CHAMPAGNE: What we said yesterday, what we did yesterday was investing in our future. This was about investing in innovation, investing in research and development. I feel very confident that this is within the WTO rules. And if he wants to bring a challenge, bring them on.
LAURA LYNCH: That was Canada's Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne yesterday. He was throwing down the gauntlet in response to a formal complaint lodged by Brazil against Canada at the World Trade Organization. It follows the Canadian government announcement of an interest free loan to Bombardier totaling three 372.5 million dollars. Brazil argues this gives the Quebec-based aerospace company an unfair competitive advantage. But the federal government is sticking to its guns, saying the loan is important for securing high quality Canadian jobs in design, engineering, and manufacturing. And that's all the more important since Bombardier announced cuts of more than 14,000 positions over the past few years. Brazil isn't the only critic of Canada's investment in Bombardier. Here is interim Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose yesterday in Question Period.
RONA AMBROSE: Well, Mr. Speaker, has the prime minister thought through the message that he's sending to Canadians across the country. When one favoured business Bombardier receives hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer handouts while he’s punishing others with higher taxes and a carbon tax. So my question is very simple, does he plan to also bail out the dry cleaning shop in Fort McMurray or a diner in Stratford? It's gone out of business because of his bad decisions.
LL: For more on the tensions surrounding the Canadian government’s Bombardier loan, I'm joined by Kristine Owram. She is transportation reporter at the Financial Post in Toronto. Hello.
KRISTINE OWRAM: Hello, good morning.
LL: We'll talk about Brazil in a moment. But first can you explain why Bombardier is getting this interest-free loan from the federal government?
KRISTINE OWRAM: Well, 375.2 million dollars sounds like a lot of money but it's actually only about a third of what Bombardier had originally asked for back in November 2015. That's how long this has been going on for. And at that time if you remember, Bombardier was having real difficulty obtaining sales orders for its C series. There were concerns that the plane was essentially going to be a dud. Bombardier later admitted that they were close to having to file for bankruptcy protection at that point in time. So the government of Quebec agreed to invest a billion dollars US in Bombardier. And both the company and the province of Quebec requested that the federal government do the same thing. These negotiations went on for almost a year and a half. There were so many questions in that period about what was happening, why it was taking so long. And finally on Tuesday we got the answer that the government has agreed to give them some money but not nearly as much as what they were asking.
LL: Why then? Why that lesser amount?
KRISTINE OWRAM: Well it seems to me, they haven't really explained it, but it seems to me like this is a real compromise. The government knew, given as you mentioned, that Bombardier has laid off thousands of people around the globe, including thousands of people in Canada, mostly in Quebec, since that initial contribution from the Quebec government was announced, that if they were to come out and give them the billion dollars, and that's a billion dollars US by the way, that they were asking for. That really would not have looked very good politically and they would have been attacked by the opposition and by a lot of taxpayers too for doing that. And so they felt like they needed to give Bombardier something to show that they support the aerospace sector in Quebec. But clearly they decided a scaled back contribution of some kind would be a compromise response to Bombardier’s requests.
LL: Now, how much is known about what happens to the money Canada loans to Bombardier? Because this certainly isn't the first time it's received monies from the federal government.
KRISTINE OWRAM: No, and that's the problem is that we actually don't know much about what happens to the money once Bombardier receives it. Bombardier in the past has gone to great lengths to keep that money, keep what happens with that money out of the public eye. They've been to court nine times in the past ten years to suppress information that has been requested under the information act. And so we know that Bombardier has received billions of dollars in contributions over the years from the federal government and various provincial governments. But it's very difficult to find out how much of that has been paid back, how the money was used. Often governments will make promises of job creation when they give this money. It's very difficult to find out if, you know, that they say this will create a thousand jobs, if those jobs were ever actually created. Because when those documents are requested from the government, they often come back heavily redacted or don't come back at all, because Bombardier fights these requests in court so frequently.
LL: So given that, do you think that the investment in Bombardier is a sound one?
KRISTINE OWRAM: Well, it's difficult to say, and again, we may never really get the answer. Bombardier is in much much better financial shape than it was back in November 2015 when it first asked for this money. That was one of the reasons the government gave for explaining why they gave them less money than they had originally asked for. They have secured a couple of major orders for the C Series, from Air Canada and from Delta Airlines in the States. And just overall, the company has a new management team, they've been restructuring their debt, their balance sheet is a lot healthier. And so the desperate need for that funding is gone and therefore Bombardier, it's not like this is rescuing them from bankruptcy, which was the argument back in November 2015 when the request was originally put forward. Now, this could still be used in useful ways to complete development of a new business jet, maybe even to look at what follows this C Series, what next new aircraft they want to work on. But whether or not the company desperately needed this and how that money's going to be put to use, we may never really know the answer to that.
LL: OK. Next up, let's get back to Brazil. Did anyone expect Brazil to file this complaint with the World Trade Organization?
KRISTINE OWRAM: Yes, absolutely. This is not a surprise at all, in fact ever since Bombardier got that order from Delta Airlines back in April of last year, Brazil has been grumbling about it. They were quite unhappy because they say that one billion dollars that Bombardier got from the Quebec government allowed them to sell those planes to Delta below cost. Now, Bombardier has never actually publicly revealed how much it sold those planes for, but there were a lot of reports at the time that they were sold at a major discount, and they were only able to do that because of that funding from Quebec. And the reason they wanted to do that was to secure a major order to show other potential customers that this plane is viable, look, we can win over a major US airline, you should all come order the plane as well. Now, that hasn't really worked. They haven't gotten a lot of orders since that Delta one. But Brazil has been grumbling ever since that happened. And yesterday they made good on their threat, they're going to the World Trade Organization and starting the formal dispute process against Canada over this government support to Bombardier.
LL: Starting, but it's likely to take years, correct?
KRISTINE OWRAM: Yes. Well, this is a very long drawn out process. This is not the first time that Canada and Brazil have fought over aerospace subsidies. In the late 1990s, there was a seven or eight year long dispute over Canada saying Brazil was subsidizing its aerospace sector, Brazil coming back and saying Canada was doing the same thing, there were claims and counterclaims. And in the end, it actually accomplished very little. And so these things can drag on for years to little effect. And it's obviously in both countries interest to avoid that this time round, but we are beginning this lengthy process as of today.
LL: OK. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you Kristine Owram.
KRISTINE OWRAM: You're welcome.
KRISTINE OWRAM: Kristine Owram is a transportation reporter at the Financial Post. And she was in Toronto. We did request a comment from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada but did not receive a response. Now, my next guest has been watching this bailout closely and has concerns with what he sees as taxpayer subsidized loans for corporate interests. Aaron Wudrick is the federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. He is in Ottawa. Hello.
AARON WUDRICK: Good morning Laura.
LL: What was your first thought when you heard that Bombardier had been given this interest-free loan?
AARON WUDRICK: Well, somewhat disappointing Laura. On the one hand, I mean, they had been asking for more than a billion dollars, about 1.3 billion Canadian. They got substantially less than that. And to us that's a good thing. You know, we're a group that views these sorts of things as what we call corporate welfare. It's public dollars going to private enterprise. We don't believe that’s the proper use for public money. And so when you have situations like this, especially like Bombardier, who I think as been noted, has received this money, this kind of money for about 50 years now. It is troubling because there are other important uses for that amount of money.
LL: But you heard Kristine say that Bombardier has a new management team in place and the balance sheet is recovering. In your mind is Bombardier now being well-run?
AARON WUDRICK: Well, it's still hard to say. And if that was indeed the case, it sort of begs the question why they left their original demand of 1.3 billion on the table. They've pointed out repeatedly that things have improved. Well then I wonder why they did not revise their demand downward? It seems to me this is a company that was simply asking to see how much it could get and was happy to frankly get anything at all.
LL: And it has, as we've noted, been and you've noted, been receiving government loans for decades. What do you see going on here? Is it a matter of emotion? Is it a matter of politics?
AARON WUDRICK: I think it is really an emotional political issue here. You know, at the end of the day, there is no special characteristic about building airplanes. As there is in about many other industries. The reality is it is a prestigious field, it seems high tech. And so I think people are, in some cases, they’re irrationally attracted to the field, even though economically it may be no different or more important than many other industries.
LL: Now, it's interesting because we did hear the Opposition Conservative Party call this government aid and an unnecessary corporate bailout. This is the same Conservative government that offered its own loan, Conservative party that offered its own loan to Bombardier when it was in power. But do you agree with that sentiment?
AARON WUDRICK: Look, I do. But I think you're absolutely right, that this has been cross partisan issue for the last half century. Governments of all stripes at all levels have consistently handed money out to private business. And, you know, and it's very hard to see what the the economic return is. We know what the political return is Laura. We know that it's popular to be seen as a politician handing a check to a business and a community, especially if it's a large employer in a small community. It's very good politics. But the question is whether or not in the long run there's good use for this money or whether we're setting a very bad precedent, whether we're teaching businesses that the way to go is to approach governments for help rather than to focus on the marketplace and try and frankly to become profitable.
LL: I want you to listen to Navdeep Bains who is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. He's talking about the potential loan just after Bombardier announced layoffs, both in Canada and abroad last October.
NAVDEEP BAINS: We want to find a solution and really focus on growth going forward for the company. That is why we’ve said from day one, it's not a matter of if but how we are going to proceed with this. And so this sector of course is very important to the Canadian economy and we want to focus to bring those jobs back to Canada. And we want to focus on the long term success of the company.
LL: Now, you've heard this before, the government making arguments that this is about jobs and I've also heard them talk about research and development. Is that enough of a justification to put the money in?
AARON WUDRICK: No I don't. I know that it's obviously very important that we keep jobs and no one wants to be callous about people losing jobs. But the reality of a market economy Laura, is sometimes companies come and sometimes they go. And sometimes that jobs have to be reduced. We see this all the time. You know, my hometown Kitchener-Waterloo Blackberry, very prominent company, you know, hit hard times and had to lay people off. There were not very many people standing around saying well, we should give them a lot of public money just to keep people employed. And yet that seems to be the argument with Bombardier. In fact, you know, as disappointing as it is that they've had to lay off thousands of people, if that is what they need to do to become a viable company again, it's hard to argue that we should pay them not to do that.
LL: But aren't these the kinds of jobs that Canada should be encouraging? These higher tech, higher knowledge jobs, especially when we're in more of a difficulty with selling our resources?
AARON WUDRICK: Well, what I would say is that the kinds of jobs that we want are ones that don't require a subsidy to exist. A real private sector job is one that exists because of market demand. It's an economic job. If you are actually paying people to create the job in the private sector, these sort of economic impact of that job, especially to the public treasury, is very different. It becomes a cost to the taxpayer rather than a net revenue generator.
LL: So what's your bottom line? Bombardier shouldn't be given any government help at all?
AARON WUDRICK: Yeah, and, you know, we don't mean to pick on Bombardier specifically, they just happen to be the single biggest recipient in in recent years. We believe this principle should apply across the board. You know, I think that as Rona Ambrose had mentioned in Question Period yesterday, if a laundromat or a restaurant down the street goes out of business, there's no one really sort of jumping up saying well, we should give them money to keep them in business. Do we want different rules to apply just because a business is very large? I think we get into a dangerous place where there are really bad incentives for companies if we do that.
LL: Alright, we will leave it there. Thank you.
AARON WUDRICK: Thank you so much Laura.
LL: Aaron Wudrick is the federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. And he was in Ottawa. Well David Moloney knows firsthand why Bombardier is asking for money. He was the former assistant deputy minister and the lead negotiator on the Bombardier file in 2008. And that's when Ottawa gave 350 million dollars in loans to develop the company’s C Series planes. He's also an Adjunct Research Professor at Ivey Business School at Western University. We reached him today in Ottawa. Hello.
DAVID MOLONEY: Good morning.
LL: You helped negotiate the 2008 loan for Bombardier, what's your reaction to what you've just heard?
DAVID MOLONEY: My reaction is that it was one of interest in the precise amounts that were put on the table this time. I mean, the amount that's reported to be under 200 million dollars in respect to the C Series program, the larger portion of this actually being for the R&D development of a different plane, the Global 7000. So that to me spoke of the government and the department, my former colleagues, having done a third round in this case, of a business case due diligence, and having come up with a number that was considerably smaller, as your other guests have discussed, considerably smaller. Then was asked not that long ago by the company but clearly the circumstances have changed. And that was an interesting aspect to me.
LL: Well, given all that, what do you think of the loan?
DAVID MOLONEY: What I think of the loan is probably based on my sense that we should be looking not at the company, despite what the other folks have said, but actually to look at this industry. I would respectfully differ from a view that aircraft building is like any other industry. And really this is about a particular company. It's not in fact like any other industry. This is a program that has been often noted as being two years late and as much as a couple of billion dollars over budget. So that means we're talking about a program that is something in the order of 15 years long. So it's admitted that it's a decade of development. It's a decade of heavy R&D spending to bring a new plane to market, which will in the in the normal course of things, in an aerospace industry, which will be produced for decades. These planes will be built for up to three decades or more, be in the air flying longer. This is not an industry profile that financial markets, banks, private lenders generally are able to accommodate, given the large amounts of money, the fact that you won't earn a single cent for something between ten and 15 years. And then, and we're talking here just for context, of R&D spending by Bombardier being in excess of 2 billion dollars a year.
LL: I hear what you're saying--
DAVID MOLONEY: For the last two years.
LL: But with all the money going into it from the government, should Canada even be in the game?
DAVID MOLONEY: Well, that is the right question. It’s not whether or not we should be in the game with Bombardier but whether or not this is an industry which requires government help for the R&D to develop a new plane. It's sometimes commented that well, other countries do it so should we. And does that mean that Bombardier’s competitors globally are able to get governments to do something that's appropriate or inappropriate. And I guess what I think the perspective that's being lost in the discussion is that yes the United States provides various kinds of support for R&D to Boeing through NASA, through military purchases, through other programs. The EU has launched aid for Airbus. Brazil has various programs for Embraer. But this is a context where really the question is it worth supporting?
LL: And the answer is?
DAVID MOLONEY: At the margin. Well, I think given the jobs, given the industrial spinoffs, it's certainly worth a very close look. The government has so far offered that the loan I was involved in was 350 million dollars, as you have said. It is possible to go to the former Industry Canada's website, which is now ISED, and you can see the evaluation published there in 2013, an audit published in 2014. So one number of interest in the original agreement in 2008, Bombardier had forecasted that it would create just shy of 8,000 person years of R & D.
LL: We're running out of time.
DAVID MOLONEY: OK.
LL: I just want to ask you very quickly, we have about 30 seconds left. Do you expect to see Canada subsidizing Bambara in the decades to come?
DAVID MOLONEY: If Bombardier comes forward with a new innovative and relevant markets proposal, I would expect any government of any political stripe to look hard at that.
LL: Mr. Moloney, I thank you very much for your time.
DAVID MOLONEY: Thank you.
LL: David Moloney is an Adjunct Research Professor at Ivey Business School and the Deputy Director of the Trillium Network. And he was in Ottawa. Well, the CBC News is next. Then, the future of smoking could just be smoke free, as a host of new cigarette alternatives come to market. But it’s the very same big tobacco companies that are behind them. I'm Laura Lynch and you’re listening to The Current.
[Music: Extro]Back To Top »
Big Tobacco's Philip Morris says it's quitting cigarettes. Critics doubt it
Guests: Peter Luongo, Melodie Tilson, David Hammond
LAURA LYNCH: Hello, I'm Laura Lynch and you're listening to The Current.
LL: Still to come, it's been part of the fabric of our lives for more than a century now, but what you don't know about rayon is the dangerous process used to make its silky smooth fibers. We'll go behind the veil of the rayon industry in half an hour. But first, giving up smoking but not nicotine.
It's to me very simple. We produce a product that causes disease and I think the primary responsibility we have once the technology is available, and today the technology is available, is to develop products like this and commercialize them as soon as possible.
That is André Calantzopoulo, the CEO of one of the world's biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International. And what he's describing would have been almost unimaginable just a few years ago, Big Tobacco quitting cigarettes. Yes, he says his company’s future is smoke-free. Now it hasn't put a date yet on when it might stub out its final butt, but it recently relaunched its website, putting e-cigarettes and its own cigarette’s alternative front and centre, together with a message that quote, “these products will one day replace cigarettes,” end quote. The company's Canadian arm has just introduced its cigarette alternative, known as iQOS, into three Canadian provinces, Ontario, Alberta, and BC. But tobacco control advocates say there's good reason to be skeptical about this smoke-free announcement. We have two guests standing by now to share their thoughts on this new direction tobacco companies are taking. Peter Luongo is the head of Rothmans Benson & Hedges. Philip Morris’s is Canadian branch. And we've reached him in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And Melodie Tilson is the Policy Director for Non-Smoker’s Rights Association. And she is in our Ottawa studio. Hello.
MELODIE TILSON: Good morning.
PETER LUONGO: Good morning.
LL: We'll start with you Peter Luongo. Philip Morris’s new website says, and this is a quote, “society expects us to act responsibly by designing a smoke-free future.” So why not announce an end date for selling cigarettes or stop selling them right now?
PETER LUONGO: Well, we'd like to stop selling cigarettes as quickly as possible, but it's really a function of how quickly we can switch people from cigarettes to smoke-free alternatives such as iQOS. And that's a function of working with the regulators and the public health community at large to inform people about the products, to inform people about the relative risks of the products. And it's only by shifting demand from cigarettes to smoke-free alternatives that we can actually achieve that vision.
LL: And is that because this is about your bottom line?
PETER LUONGO: No, it's because from a public health perspective, the only thing that's going to have an impact is if people move away from cigarettes and we shift the demand. At the end of the day, it's not about who manufactures the cigarettes, as long as cigarettes are available and people want them, there's going to be an issue. So we have to change that underlying demand dynamic.
LL: There's just one more question I want to ask you about this statement before I get to Melodie. The statement says society expects us to act responsibly, so does that mean that you have been acting irresponsibly by selling cigarettes?
PETER LUONGO: No, of course not. I think the key point here is that now that we have the technology available to us to provide people with smoke-free alternatives such as iQOS, we have the responsibility to introduce them. It's really an exciting time for us at RBH, because now we have something that we can offer to people that is really a better choice for smokers today.
LL: Melodie Tilson, what do you think of Philip Morris’s statement of their new vision?
MELODIE TILSON: Well, I really question Mr. Luongo’s statement that the only alternative is to switch the demand to these new products. There is a much better alternative, and that is to help smokers quit altogether and to prevent young people from starting to smoke in the first place. And there are many things, many that tobacco companies could do in that regard. The first of which would be to stop opposing every meaningful measure to reduce smoking rates in countries around the world. And in particular, to stop promoting smoking in all the ways it has been banned in Canada and elsewhere, in developing countries.
LL: Well, I hear that, but then again, you've got to admit that this is something different that can actually perhaps get people to stop smoking cigarettes.
MELODIE TILSON: This is not an either or proposition. The companies can introduce safer alternatives to cigarettes at the same time as they aggressively phase out of selling the most dangerous product on the market, as I said, by not continuing to promote smoking in all the ways that they have for many decades since they've known of the many health risks.
LL: Peter Luongo, what's your response?
PETER LUONGO: Well, I think Melodie may be surprised that we actually agree on a lot of what she said. I mean, the reality is that if someone is really concerned about tobacco related disease, the best alternative is for them to stop using tobacco products altogether. But the reality is that despite all of the measures that have been introduced, there's still over four million smokers in Canada. And so we think we need to give them an alternative. And I agree 100 per cent with the statement that it's not an either or proposition. That we need to both continue to do things to give people alternatives and at the same time have appropriate regulations on cigarettes.
LL: Your company.
PETER LUONGO: So--
LL: I just want to jump in. Your company is claiming there is a reduced risk with iQOS. What evidence is there that supports that statement?
PETER LUONGO: Well, we actually have millions of pages of data. And in fact, Philip Morris International recently submitted that data to the FDA in the US for it to review. There have been many many peer reviewed studies. We have hundreds of scientists who are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to validate what we're saying about the product. So actually, you know, I'd be happy for you or anyone else in the public health community to come out to the R & D facility that we have in Switzerland and talk with the scientists and go through the data.
LL: Is there any third party research on this?
PETER LUONGO: There have been many peer reviews of the data. There have been third parties who have done research on the product.
LL: Is that public?
PETER LUONGO: Yes, there are things that have been shown publicly. There's a lot of data that we have made available publicly. And, you know, this is something where I think people need to spend time with the data. And we're happy to make the data available to people.
LL: Melodie, have you seen any of this?
MELODIE TILSON: Yes I have.
MELODIE TILSON: I've been all over their websites and looked at the research reports. The tobacco companies have a long and well-documented history of lying about the health risks of their product, all the while knowing that these products caused many diseases. So while they are making some of the data available, we have no information on whether they're making all of the data available. And as well, disease takes decades to become manifest and we won't know with these products, as with cigarettes, what the real health impacts are. So to be clear, we do welcome reduced risk products, but we think it's vital that the public and regulators have a healthy dose of skepticism about the motives of these companies and about their claims regarding health benefits.
LL: Mr. Luongo, you can understand that people might be very skeptical, given that image of all of those tobacco companies CEOs testifying in Washington, and declaring nicotine as not being addictive.
PETER LUONGO: Well, I can understand that people have questions. I can understand that people want to look at the science and we welcome them to do that. We think the data and the facts will speak for themselves here. I think it's important to focus on where we are today and where we can go in the future and what we can do for public health in the future.
LL: I'd like both of you to listen to a clip now from Suzy McDonald. She is the Director General of the Tobacco Control Program at Health Canada.
So based on the limited information we have on iQOS, if it does contain tobacco, then it would be subject to all the provisions of the Tobacco Act, including those that prohibit furnishing them to youth or selling them to youth, and any restrictions around promotion. So all of the Tobacco Act restrictions around promotion would apply to the iQOS product.
LL: Now, Peter Luongo, you can't advertise this product in Canada, so some out there, again, people who are skeptical are suggesting that you're using the introduction of a smoke-free vision as a PR stunt just to get attention.
PETER LUONGO: The reality is that we're trying to make people aware of where we're trying to take the company and where we see ourselves and our role in society. We think that's important. We think that we have an obligation to tell people that these products exist.
LL: Melodie Tilson, what sort of continued opposition are we seeing from tobacco companies on anti-smoking measures?
MELODIE TILSON: We're seeing the same oppositional activities from the tobacco industry that we've seen for the last 40 or 50 years. They oppose tax increases, which are the single most effective way to prevent young people from starting to smoke and to get smokers to quit. They've launched an aggressive lobbying campaign against plain and standardized packaging, which would remove all promotional elements from the package. They've opposed advertising bans, they oppose smoke free legislation, they opposed bans on flavourings. The latest being a proposal to ban menthol in all cigarettes. These are all ways that tobacco companies legitimize their products and legitimize smoking and downplay the known health risks. And so as I said from the outset, if tobacco companies were really sincere in wanting smokers to use a less harmful product and get them all off of cigarettes, they would not continue to put millions of dollars and considerable resources behind these significant campaigns to oppose meaningful public health regulations.
LL: Now, the federal government has a new tobacco bill that's being tabled that to a large degree looks at the regulations of these kinds of e-cigarettes and cigarette alternatives, what does it have to say about that?
MELODIE TILSON: Tobacco companies have not been involved in the vaping market in Canada to date. But there are other measures in this bill, measures that would give the government authority to regulate plain and standardized packaging. And you only need go on the lobbyist registry to see how aggressively the tobacco companies have been meeting with members of parliament and senators to make their opposition to this bill known.
LL: The one thing I want to ask you about though Melodie is I look at what the UK is doing, and it is regulating e-cigarettes. And in fact, there is at least one anti-smoking advocacy group that is embracing the idea of e-cigarettes as a harm reduction measure, not wholeheartedly but saying this is at least a step. Can your group at least go that far?
MELODIE TILSON: We have for the past five years. We have been calling for the government to make the sale of e-cigarettes with nicotine legal, but also to introduce regulations that would make these products safer for consumers and that would require labeling so consumers would know what's in the products that they're using.
LL: Peter Luongo, do you think that there is anything more that you can do to persuade groups like Melodie’s that what you're doing is the right thing?
PETER LUONGO: Well, I guess I'd like to start by clarifying one thing with respect to the current legislation. And I can't speak for the rest of the industry, I can only speak for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges. But we are not doing anything to actively oppose plain packaging right now, what we are focused on is on the ability to tell consumers that alternatives exist and to tell them truthful and scientifically substantiated information about the products. And the reason that that is is while we would disagree in terms of the effect of something like plain packaging. You know, at the end of the day, regardless of what you put on the package, you can put anything you want on the package, it doesn't address the fact that inside that package is a cigarette. And the cigarette is the problem here. So that's why we want to switch people from cigarettes to other things.
LL: OK. So tell me then, it is a tiny part of your market right now. What measures could you put in place to shift the market to these reduced risk products? You still say there are 4 million people in Canada who are smoking cigarettes.
PETER LUONGO: Well, exactly. I mean, I think the first thing that we need to be able to do is to effectively tell people that these products exist. And then we need to be able to explain how they work. The fact that they are not risk free, I mean, I think that's important and it goes back to something that was said earlier. These products are not risk free. They are for people who would otherwise keep smoking, not for people who would otherwise quit. But if you are going to continue smoking, this is a better choice. And we need to have that conversation with consumers and it's very challenging to do in the current environment. There are obviously things that we can do and we will continue to abide by the regulations. But to the extent that we do have the ability to communicate with consumers, adult consumers of these products, we think that's important.
LL: But no, just to be very clear, no plans on your part to end the sale of cigarettes in Canada anytime soon?
PETER LUONGO: We don't think that doing that will change consumption. There are two other major manufacturers of cigarettes in Canada, in addition to all of the products which are sold illegally in Canada which is a huge issue. So, you know, for us to do something unilaterally would just shift people's consumption to other producers and increase the amount of illicit trade here in Canada. So I don't think that, you know, moving people's consumption to contraband products as an example, does anything for public health. In fact, the opposite.
LL: Many thanks to both of you for your time.
MELODIE TILSON: Thank you very much.
PETER LUONGO: Thank you.
LL: Bye bye. Peter Luongo is the head of Rothmans, Benson & Hedges. He was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Melodie Tilson is the Policy Director for the Non Smokers Rights Association. And she was in our Ottawa studio. Now, of course the quest to create a healthier cigarette is nothing new for the tobacco industry, but neither is the suggestion that what they're selling may not be as harmful as you think.
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LL: That is an ad from the 1950s. And while the very notion of a healthy cigarette may seem like an oxymoron, the tobacco industry has spent millions in pursuit of just such a holy grail. David Hammond is a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Waterloo, and studies tobacco control policy and the history of attempts at harm reduction. He is in Waterloo, Ontario today. Hello.
DAVID HAMMOND: Good morning.
LL: What do you think about the introduction of the iQOS to the Canadian market?
DAVID HAMMOND: Well I think it's very interesting. I think it's the continuation of a strategy that we've seen for 70 years. So you played an ad there, I mean, ever since the tobacco industry became concerned about the risks of smoking in the fifties, they introduced filters on cigarettes. That was your original reduced harm cigarette. Then they marketed a light or mild cigarette, that was the next generation. And we've actually had heat not burn products on the market for over 20 years now. So I don't think it's necessarily a new strategy. The technology is new and I think it's something that public health scientists should take a serious look at. The bottom line is getting people off of smoke. There is nothing dirtier, more harmful, than smoke as a delivery mechanism for nicotine. So whether it's an e-cigarette, whether it's these heat not burn products, we should be paying very close attention to them. But in terms of their promise to stop selling cigarettes, that very much echoes from the past.
LL: But when was the first attempt at a so-called healthier alternative to cigarettes?
DAVID HAMMOND: Well, honestly you can go back to the 1950s. So most cigarettes in Canada in the early fifties, almost all of them were unfiltered. They had no filter on them. And then over a period of about a decade, the entire market switched to filtered cigarettes. That was marketed as a less harmful cigarette. You had things like T-Zones, and then it was changes to the filtration with low tar. When you start to see these really different products, so what this product does is it heats tobacco to the point of vaporization.
LL: You're talking about the iQOS now just to be clear.
DAVID HAMMOND: That's right. That's right. Yeah, it heats it to the point of vaporization and you inhale vapor rather than smoke. And that's similar to what an e-cigarette does, except for the e-cigarette doesn't include tobacco, it just includes nicotine in a solution. So, you know, we have very good reason to believe that anything that is smoke, that is combustible, is more harmful than anything that is not. But it really comes down to how this product is marketed and whether actually people want to switch them or not.
LL: Right, because one of the concerns from those who criticize this move is that developing a product like this will actually ensure that, or at least lead to younger people taking on this kind of a product, and getting addicted to nicotine.
DAVID HAMMOND: Well that's it. I mean, look, you know, Philip Morris International could design chicken noodle soup and sell it. If it does, you know, it's less harmful, it may not, you know, reduce smoking. These products have always been sort of dangled like shiny tin foil to get people's attention but previous heat not burn products nobody has switched to them. Now, e-cigarettes have been different. We've seen a whole lot of trial among smokers. We've seen a minority of those actually switch to e-cigarettes. But what we now believe is that you have to get completely off of smoking cigarettes to realize any reduced risk. And that would be true of these heat not burn products as well. So that's a message that we're not hearing the tobacco companies provide. And I have to say it's a bit rich to talk about the importance of communicating relative risk to consumers when, you know, these are companies that continue to sue Canada and countries like Uganda when they try and put health warnings on the packs. So is that an important priority or goal? Yes it is. Is Philip Morris best positioned to do that? Well, I think they should probably have a conversation with scientists and governments before they go right to consumers.
LL: Well in that context then, what do you think of Philip Morris’s assertion that it will go smoke free?
DAVID HAMMOND: Well, you know, Philip Morris's CEO, I think it was in the 1970s, promised that Philip Morris would stop selling cigarettes if they were ever proved to be harmful. So you've got a promise from more than 50 years ago to stop selling cigarettes. Now, do I think that we're going to have a day in the future when that happens in Canada and other countries? I do. But, you know, and I think the government can play an important role in incentivizing companies to stop selling these other cigarettes. If in fact it's true what Philip Morris is saying, and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, that is that these products are less harmful and that people are actually willing to switch for them, then I think, you know, there's very little reason not to start turning the screws on conventional cigarettes like we've never done. I mean, every taxi driver that picks me up says well, why don't you just stop selling the product? If Philip Morris's claims are in fact true, then perhaps that day is closer than they imagine.
LL: When you talk about incentives, what should they be?
DAVID HAMMOND: Well, you know, it’s things like you can charge differential amounts. So if these other products, whether it's vapourized nicotine, or if these other products are markedly less harmful. You know, we've never done anything in Canada to actually reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes. We do all sorts of things about the package and marketing and telling people not to smoke or where they can smoke. But the cigarette today is as or more harmful than it was 50 to 60 years ago. And so maybe for the first time, the government should think about actually phasing cigarettes out or giving companies some serious financial incentives to stop selling those other cigarettes, if these other products are in fact appealing to our four and a half million smokers.
LL: Will smoking ever be safe?
DAVID HAMMOND: No. And, you know, I object to the word safe. I often give talks on this issue and we've had a real hard time in the news and even in public health. I ask everyone to hold hands and say with me e-cigarettes are harmful but less harmful than cigarettes. We're not talking about safe products. We don't know where these heat not burn products fall, but it's probably somewhere between e-cigarettes and conventional smoke cigarettes. So it could well be that the iQOS is the most harmful consumer product on the market after cigarettes. There could still be substantial reduction. So it's a difficult thing to think about as being less harmful but still harmful. But I think that's the category that we should be thinking.
LL: Well I guess that's an interesting question, because in our conversations with Mr. Luongo, he said that the evidence they have is public and is peer reviewed. Have you seen the evidence? Does it give you any clue?
DAVID HAMMOND: Well, he mentioned that some of that’s been submitted to the US FDA. My understanding is that they are selling this product to consumers in Canada today. To my knowledge, as a scientist who does work in this area, I know nothing about that. I don't know how much our federal government knows about it. I would prefer that they would actually go through some sort of process before they're sort of experimenting with smokers in Canada on this. So, you know, does the industry have the credibility to make scientific claims about its products? No. Are they sharing some of that information publicly? Yes. But I think we need a little bit more evidence. But I mean, let me be clear. It is quite plausible that a product that delivers nicotine without smoke is less harmful than a product that delivers it with smoke. But we need to know a lot more about this product and what's in it and whether in fact people are using it in a way that they would actually quit cigarettes.
LL: David Hammond, thank you.
DAVID HAMMOND: Thank you.
LL: David Hammond is a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Waterloo. He was in Waterloo, Ontario. And now we'd like to hear from you. Do you think that Big Tobacco companies can be part of the solution by marketing so-called smokeless cigarettes? Be in touch with us with your thoughts. We're also on Facebook and on Twitter @TheCurrentCBC or me @LauraLynchCBC. You can send us an email, go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent and click on the contact link. Well, coming up in our next half hour, we're going to talk about fake silk. That's the title of a new exposé into the surprisingly dangerous world of manufacturing rayon. You'll never look at that silky material the same way again. I'm Laura Lynch and you are listening to The Current.
LAURA LYNCH: Hello, I'm Laura Lynch and you're listening to The Current.
[Music: The Disruptors Theme]
LL: As part of our season-long project The Disruptors, we're sharing the stories some of you, our listeners, have sent us about moments that changed your lives. And today we're hearing a moment of disruption from Derek Newman. It involves a lesson he learned as a child about racism. A lesson that came in an unexpected form.
[Music: solemn string tones]
DEREK NEWMAN: I grew up in South Africa in the seventies, under apartheid. And we used to do this thing, we called it a game but it wasn't really a game, because in a game there's a chance you might lose. We never lost. There'd be a group of us three or four, you never did it alone. But, you know, a few kids would get together and we'd be walking home from school and these black guys would be coming out of the mines. You know, these huge guys whose arms were the size of my waist. We wouldn't do it all the time, but occasionally, you know, if we were feeling particularly rambunctious that day, one of us would throw our books down and then we would use a pejorative, which is common in South Africa. And we'd say hey, blank, pick that up. And not only would they pick it up, but they would bow their heads and hand it to you and say “sorry boss.” And we thought this was great fun. You know, we were just kids, you know. And in that society, at that time, they had no recourse. So we won every time.
[Music: sitar strumming]
DEREK NEWMAN: When we were at home, we were taught to treat everyone with respect. My mom used to, back in the sixties, she used to go to protests against apartheid. So my parents were pretty liberal. But then when you leave the house, the law of the land, the entire society is based on the fact that white people are superior. When you're just a kid, you know, you sort of default to the peer pressure. And I mean, not even just peer pressure but the pressure of the police who treated everyone in this manner. You know, and the pressure of parliament and the government as it was structured.
DEREK NEWMAN: So we moved to Canada in August of 1980, not knowing anything about Canada. I honestly thought we were going to live in an igloo. I had just turned 11. And it took a little while for me to make some friends because I had a weird accent and I was a new kid. But I did make some friends and we started sort of to get to know each other. And then one day, it was just in December, we were walking home from school one day, we and my new friends, and I saw these three black guys walking towards us. And they were a little older than me, a couple of years maybe. And I thought I will show my new friends how cool I am. And so I threw my books down and I knew that the word in South Africa didn't apply here, so I used the n-word, and I said hey, pick that up. I looked over to see my new friends, they were in some manner supernaturally sort of sliding away from me [chuckles] and the look on their face was just what did you just say. So I turned my attention back to the three very angry young black men in front of me and they beat the snot out of me. And they left me bleeding in a snow bank, two black eyes, dislocated nose or broken nose, I'm not sure, cut lip, cut eye. Just in general, pain and agony. When I walked in the door my sister was making dinner and she looked at me and she didn't even bat an eyelash. She just said what did you do? And so I told her and she said it serves you right.
[Music: electronic keynotes]
DEREK NEWMAN: And I mean, I knew it. And I, you know, I felt horrible. And I knew that I had done something wrong and I knew that what I was taught as a child, outside of the hall, it became blindingly clear to me that that was the wrong lesson. And education comes in many forms. Doesn't always have to be a textbook. That day it was six fists. A hard come by but thoroughly learned. It occurred to me right then and there that equality starts with the right to fight back. I mean, those guys in South Africa they had the ability to fight back. But had they touched me, the wrath of God would have descended upon them. And I can only imagine how heartbreaking it was for them to see, you know, here's the next generation of oppression. I went back to school and there was this girl there who was I believe Vietnamese. And a couple of weeks prior we had a group project to do. And I had used a pejorative term for her as well. I remember when we were doing the project and I said the word, the look on her face was just like, I broke her heart. I mean, she was offended [chuckles] as well. But I broke her heart. Here we are in Canada, which is a very enlightened country. And here is this little jerk with a funny accent calling people names. And that day when I went to school, I went straight up to her and I apologized. And I told her that I was wrong and I hoped that she could forgive me. When I look back on that moment now, I'm just ashamed of myself. It's a lesson. It's, I guess, a fable of sorts. You know, it has a moral to the story. I just think that everybody has to have the right to fight back when something impedes upon their freedom.
[Music: electronic keynotes]
LL: That was Derek Newman sharing the story of how he learned to stop being racist. We'd love to hear from you about the moment that changed your life, whether for the better or worse. You can email us through our website, go to cbc.ca/thecurrent and click on the contact link. And make sure to put personal moment of disruption in the subject line. While you're on our site, you can check out other moments of disruption and other features from our series The Disruptors. It's all at cbc.ca/thecurrent. You are listening to The Current on CBC Radio One and Sirius XM, I'm Laura Lynch.Back To Top »
Why rayon is killing industry workers: author Paul Blanc
Guests: Paul Blanc
ADVERTISEMENT VOICEOVER: Today rayon brings new beauty and luxury within the reach of everyone for every apparel use, in every room of the home. Woven, knitted, braided in exquisite textures, patterns, colours, rayon fabrics brighten practically every household in the civilized world. A product of test tube and retaught, it is obvious that better rayon means better chemistry. Rayon by DuPont sets the pace of textile progress, with its promise of still finer, still better things to come.
LAURA LYNCH: That promotional film from 1940 touts the wonders of rayon, a miracle of modern chemistry. And for well over a century, rayon or viscose as it's also known, has been used to make everything from clothes and tires to cellophane and even everyday kitchen sponges. And as you can hear from the tone of that vintage film, rayon was hailed as a wondrous new fiber when it was first developed early in the 20th century. But what that film doesn't mention and what is still little understood to this day is just how dangerous rayon can be for the factory workers who manufacture it. In his new book Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, author Paul Blanc looks at how the manufacturing of viscose rayon served as a death sentence for many industry workers and how it continues to this day to be green washed as an eco-friendly product. Paul Blanc is a Professor of Medicine and holds the endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. He joins us from San Francisco. Hello.
PAUL BLANC: Hello.
LL: What prompted you to write the book?
PAUL BLANC: Well, the reason I wrote this book was really to memorialize the workers, who over more than 100 years have given up their health and sometimes their lives to make this product.
LL: Now, I want to get to that of course. But first, can you talk about the history of the material?
PAUL BLANC: So this is a book about viscose. And viscose is a simple substance really, you take wood pulp or some other source of cellulose, you mix it up with caustic and then you add this very peculiar chemical called carbon disulfide. And that's really at the heart of the story. You make a kind of toxic maple syrup that you force through pipes and then little nozzle holes under a bath of sulfuric acid. And when you spray this out into the acid, the cellulose comes back into form. But unfortunately, the carbon disulfide goes off into the air when you do that.
LL: Where did this idea come from, to create some sort of a material out of all of these chemicals?
PAUL BLANC: Well, it was a big search at the end of the 19th century to make some kind of synthetic fiber textile, and viscose rayon was one of the very first. There were a couple of other ways of making cellulose based textile, but this preceded the synthetics that people know better now a days by about 30 to 40 years.
LL: And as you say, cellulose, this is actually made of a by-product of wood. How popular did it become over the years?
PAUL BLANC: Oh, very popular and its use has expanded, it wasn't just a textile. It's the same basis of cellophane, which was a huge industry. It still has a niche market. Cellophane is simply instead of forcing that syrup out through a little hole, you force it out through a thin slit and make a film. And that's basically the same process that's used to make viscose-based casings for sausage. You don't end up eating the sausage or the hot dog with the casing because it's not edible but it helps the manufacturers form the sausage. That's the basis of the very important societal breakthrough, the skinless weenie.
LL: [chuckles] OK. Where else do we find it?
PAUL BLANC: Well, it's actually the basis of most modern synthetic sponges. That was really introduced big time after World War II. So it's one of the later innovations. And up until the fifties, it was really the preferred fiber for reinforcing tires. Nylon has superseded that to a large extent but there are still specialty tires for which rayon is the preferred reinforcer.
LL: And of course, we can find it in a lot of clothing today.
PAUL BLANC: That's correct. People don't realize it's rayon because the label says 20 per cent viscose and they say oh, viscose, OK, that must be like polyester or some other thing. But it's really viscose is rayon. Rayon was an invented term by the American dry goods manufacturing association in the 1920s because they thought it sounded modern and was a better term than artificial silk, which is what people knew it as. Although the British called it art silk and the Germans did too, literally translated.
LL: And it was hugely popular.
PAUL BLANC: Yes, still is.
LL: Still is. You described how it's made and you talked about the one chemical that goes into it and then comes out of it in the process of making it. What makes it so toxic?
PAUL BLANC: Actually I don't know anyone really has nailed down why carbon disulfide is as toxic as it is. It seems to interfere with important metabolic functions, particularly in the brain. It's a great great solvent, so it passes into the brain easily. And in fact, it was pretty easy to recognize the toxic effects early on because it makes workers insane. It was used originally in the rubber industry, I should say, in the 19th century. So the medical information goes back to the middle of the 19th century or before. There was a famous rubber factory where they put bars on the second story windows because so many workers had a tendency to jump out and kill themselves.
LL: OK. Forgive me for being naive but why would they keep doing it when they knew the effect it was having on workers?
PAUL BLANC: It was a huge centre of profit.
LL: And the workers, why did they keep working there?
PAUL BLANC: People have to eat. And so if you make a salary for a few years before you go insane, in the Depression the industry was increasing logarithmically in the United States, in France, in Britain. And the huge rayon manufacturer in Canada was a wholly owned company of Courtaulds, that was the British, and it was based in Ontario in Cornwall.
LL: So do we know how many people were actually affected by, tell me if I'm pronouncing this correctly carbon disulfide.
PAUL BLANC: You are pronouncing it correctly. And one of the good studies that was done by US investigators helped by the state of Pennsylvania, which is where the industry was based in the 1930s. When they did a survey, they found that about 30 per cent of the workers that they investigated showed signs of serious poisoning.
LL: Wow. Is there any treatment? You say that you can work for a few years before you're driven insane.
PAUL BLANC: Well you could actually go insane quicker than that. But I was assuming that it was a lower level than the very worst. The treatment is to remove people from exposure. Unfortunately, some of the longer term insidious effects are things like premature heart attack or stroke, and Parkinson's disease is also linked to this chemical.
LL: And there's no treatment? Other than--
PAUL BLANC: There are medical treatments for Parkinson's but it doesn't reverse.
LL: And how long was it until they realized that maybe they needed to do something to help the workers or is it still going on to this day?
PAUL BLANC: Oh, it's still going on to this day. The factories for the textile are no longer, by and large, in North America or in Europe, except for a few exceptions. The industry for textiles has moved to India to China to Indonesia. We have no medical data on any plant from Indonesia. And the data from India are very sparse. There's been research in China, which shows that there are problems there.
LL: Just to get this cleared up though, as much as it is having these awful effects on the people who create the rayon viscose in the factories, what are the health impacts for those of us who bought the tires in the past or who are buying the clothes today or the sausages?
PAUL BLANC: You're completely safe. You'll be glad to know. Which is why, probably I should have said this earlier, why it's gone on as long. Because when consumers aren't affected, there's not very much impetus for outrage if it's just the poor people making it that suffer. So it's really very analogous to buying that 12 dollar t-shirt in the warehouse store that should have cost 25 dollars. And the reason it's 12 dollars is because some unfortunate on the 15th floor death trap walk up in Bangladesh made it, four or five cents a day salary or whatever it is.
LL: But you say that--
PAUL BLANC: So there's no danger to you buying that t-shirt.
LL: Right. Now, you visited a viscose plant that’s still operating in Europe. Are the conditions, at least for the workers better?
PAUL BLANC: Yes, absolutely. You can actually make more money if you do the right kind of controls, because instead of letting all of that carbon disulfide off go off into the breathing zone of the workers or into the surrounding environment, you recycle it you use it again because it keeps cycling back through. So in that particular plant now, the levels are quite low and they monitor the workers quite closely. Of course, historically it wasn't so, in fact, that very same plant had a special satellite concentration camp during the war that supplied women workers to work in that factory.
LL: And do you know what happened to them?
PAUL BLANC: The same thing that would happen to other slave labourers across Europe that were working in the industry. And I will say that that particular manufacturer has been pretty open about this history and has tried to make amends. But it was not unique unfortunately, there were plants across Germany and across occupied Europe that had exactly the same kinds of workers. And so put on top of the regular horrible conditions of forced labourers, they also suffered terribly. There's a very interesting memoir by a French writer who survived such a factory in another part of Germany, who was arrested early in the occupation for underground work. And she didn't know what she was exposed to, she just knew that she was suffering terribly. And she did survive, although she died young.
LL: Did she describe her suffering?
PAUL BLANC: Yes she did. Very movingly. And one of the effects also in these factories, which is not directly from carbon disulfide, but as indirect from its reaction with the sulfuric acid is terrible eye damage. And she suffered from that, she was nearly blind and had to be helped by her coworkers. But there are similar stories from other places. A report from England from that period, with more than 1,000 cases of fairly serious eye injury. And in the United States, in the southern United States, when the industry started to move down their description of people having to be walked home at the end of the day because they basically couldn't see.
LL: It really is astounding to hear that people were allowed to keep working in those kinds of conditions. You say that conditions are better in the plant you visited in Europe. What about in the other parts of the world where you say plants are operating now?
PAUL BLANC: Well we can only guess. I actually saw a plant in Taiwan but it wasn't at full production, so it was hard for me to truly gauge. There's very little data. For example from India, I found one report by a cultural anthropologist about a town that has a rayon factory. And he wrote about the complaints among the workers of impotence and viewed it as a symbolic kind of Luddite response of the community, when in fact impotence is a well-known toxic effect of the chemical. It has two phases of effects on the central nervous system in terms of sexual functioning. It initially with high levels of exposure makes people rather disinhibited and lascivious, and then later on impotence in males sets in. The French in the 19th century loved to write about this stuff. And interestingly, in the rubber industry it's early poisoning was in the condom manufacturing industry, which was a big industry in Paris.
LL: When it comes to these other factories though that you weren't able to get into so you don't have a firsthand idea of how the conditions are, how as consumers, what products are we in the West getting from those factories?
PAUL BLANC: Well first of all, you know, you're getting these sausages not from Indonesia or China, you're getting them from right at home in North America and Europe. And at least according to EPA data, some of those casing manufacturers are big air polluters with carbon disulfide, so we don't know what's in the factories.
LL: Now you are listing off all of the disease, the pollution, and yet you say that this product is being marketed and branded as eco-friendly?
PAUL BLANC: That's correct, because it's based on cellulose rather than on petroleum. Of course, that omits that one thing is the way you make the carbon disulfide is either converting natural gas into the substance or coal. So even at that level it's not green. But of course, you just omit entirely the fact that you can't make the product basically without this toxic chemical. So it's really a green washing of the most diabolical sort. And the other spin on it is that the manufacturers who, as their source of cellulose instead of using wood pulp use bamboo pulp, try to up the ante and say it's even greener, for that reason. I've also seen sponges advertised this way too by the way. That is to say, synthetic sponges made from viscose.
LL: What should the consumer do in the face of all of this information?
PAUL BLANC: Well, there may be a model in how people have responded to the disasters coming out of Bangladesh, where there's been demands that the middle men, the people who job out this apparel manufacturing require a certain level of safety in the plant, so that's one thing. I'm not a big believer in the burden of making this better being in the hands of the consumer, I think we have to turn to our regulators. You know, we don't ask the consumer to guarantee that they turn the tap on and their water doesn't contain cholera bacillus. So for the same reason I think these controls need to come at the societal level and at the international level, if it has to do with importation of materials that are made under suboptimal working conditions. Now, in the current political climate do I think that US OSHA anytime soon is going to lower its--
LL: That’s occupational health and safety.
PAUL BLANC: Standard. Yes. So I'm not holding my breath for that. And do I think that if they really do revisit international trade agreements, that a priority for the US government is going to be guarantees of safe manufacturing and unionization of the workforce in these plants? I don't think so. And as I said, none of these rayon textile plants are in the United States anymore, I think the last one was in Axis, Alabama. Do I think that industry is going to return to the United States any time soon? No.
LL: So then the United States gets to say not our problem.
PAUL BLANC: That's correct. And Canada can say that too.
LL: And so is viscose around here to stay?
PAUL BLANC: Yes, I would say so.
LL: Absolutely no suggestion that there is any groundswell of support for trying to lobby for something to change?
PAUL BLANC: Well, there is a substitute chemical that can be used to make one type of viscose that's a bit more expensive. Unfortunately, we don't have very much toxicology data on that chemical at all. Although, I will say it's hard to imagine a chemical worse than carbon disulfide. There are other kinds of rayon, although they're very niche market. Specific there is a kind of rayon that's called cupro, which apparently is the preferred rayon for the lining of very very expensive bespoke suits. So if you know someone who's a connoisseur of that, they'll know exactly what cupro is, it used to be called bamburgh silk, it came out in Germany but now it's manufactured only in Japan.
LL: Well, I guess maybe the lesson for consumers is to learn more and read your labels.
PAUL BLANC: The bottom line is that knowledge is power and people should be informed.
LL: Well, thank you very much professor for your time.
PAUL BLANC: Oh, very happy to be with you.
LL: Paul Blanc is a Professor of Medicine and holds the endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. His new book is called Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon. And he was in San Francisco. The Current tried to get comment from companies in China and Japan who still produce rayon and cellulose but they didn't respond. That is our program for today. And remember, you can always take The Current with you on the go on the CBC Radio app. It lets you browse through past episodes of our show and start listening in just a few seconds. You can search for stories you missed or you want to hear again or you can listen live to your local CBC station right from your smartphone or tablet. Hear are the day's top stories, even make your own playlist of your favourite stuff to listen to later. It's all free from the App Store or Google Play. Finally, after our conversation about the future of cigarettes, let's end on a nostalgic musical note. This is Otis Redding from 1966, with his song Cigarettes and Coffee, one of those sounds pretty good to me. [chuckles] I'm Laura Lynch, thank you for listening to The Current.
[Music: Otis Redding]
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