COVER

ELBOWS FLY IN SMOKING WARS

BARRY CAME April 14 1997
COVER

ELBOWS FLY IN SMOKING WARS

BARRY CAME April 14 1997

ELBOWS FLY IN SMOKING WARS

COVER

BARRY CAME

On many an evening, especially when there is a wintry bite in the air, he can be found at the outdoor rink in downtown Toronto's Ramsden Park. It's the hockey that draws him, those pickup games that occur when enough willing bodies gather after work to relax by

chasing a puck around the ice. The rink’s regulars know him well, as much for his scrappy style of play as for his dis-

tinctive grey hair and beard to match. For on the ice, just as in his more public off-ice pursuits, Garfield Mahood tends to wreak havoc.

“I do enjoy the rough stuff,” he confesses with an impish grin. “I like the play along the boards and around the net. And I just love charging into the corners, elbows flying, after that puck.”

Mahood has been working the corners all his life. His entire career, in fact, has been built upon the no-holds-barred

approach that serves him so well on the hockey rink. And for much of the past two decades, his elbows have been flying in the face of the tobacco industry, both in Canada and abroad.

As the long-serving executive director of the Toronto-headquartered Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, the feisty 56-year-old has been in the noisy forefront of virtually every major battle to restrict the sale, use and promotion of tobacco products in Canada. He is largely responsible for those frighteningly ominous warnings that now decorate every cigarette pack sold in this country, as well as in places as far-flung as Australia, Thailand and South Africa. He has played a role in forcing tobacco ads out of the print media and off the airwaves.

He has helped to banish smoking from Canadian airplanes, federal and Ontario government buildings, and, most recently, Toronto bars and restaurants. Mahood can even claim at least some of the credit for the proposed new federal legislation, now awaiting Senate approval, that would, among other measures, severely curtail tobacco-company sponsorship of cultural and sporting events.

If there is any solace in that long string of achievements, Mahood betrays no sign of it as he sits in his shirtsleeves late at night amid the clutter of the NSRA’s offices, just a few blocks west of the Ramsden Park rink. “Satisfied?”

he asks, incredulously. “How can I be satisfied when I’m under siege?” Warming to the subject, he leans forward. “I’m portrayed as a zealot, a fascist, a pinko, I don’t know what else,” he complains. “On top of that, there’s a deliberate disinformation campaign under way designed to impugn my integrity and that of many of my colleagues, not to mention destabilize our financing.” He levels a finger. “I’m telling you, there are a lot of people out there who want to put us right out of business.”

Not everyone, it seems, is a fan. While Mahood’s endeavors may have won him many plaudits, not least a gold medal from the World Health Organization and a “citation of merit” from the Canadian Cancer Society, they have also earned the enmity of some powerful adversaries. He is currently engaged in a running feud with The Globe and Mail, having twice launched libel actions against the Toronto

newspaper. In January, the Globe settled one with an undisclosed cash payment and a printed apology for suggesting, in a column

by writer Terence Corcoran, that Mahood’s right-hand man, NSRA legal counsel David Sweanor, knowingly misstated facts about smoking deaths. Then, late in February, Mahood again declared his intention to sue the Globe, that time over a front-page story and another Corcoran column, both dealing with an internal NSRA discussion paper the

Globe had somehow obtained. It purported to detail an NSRA plan to publicly ridicule, embarrass and otherwise undermine the credibility of several leading critics of the organization, including the Globe, Liberal MP John Bryden and Marie-Josée Lapointe, official spokeswoman for the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council.

Mahood does not deny authoring the document in question, but he dismisses it as unimportant, merely “a brainstorming list of ideas aimed at stimulating discussion among the staff.” He does, however, see darker motives at work in the entire affair. “Maybe it’s payback for the earlier law-

suit,” he muses, before asserting, “I do know that the paper’s editorial policy under [editor-in-chief William] Thorsell has amounted to nothing more than support for the tobacco industry.”

Mahood places Hamilton/Wentworth MP Bryden in an even more insidious category. ‘That guy, unwittingly or not, is simply doing the dirty work for the tobacco lobby,” he charges, alluding to Bryden’s ongoing campaign to strip advocacy groups like the NSRA of federal funding and charitable status. Mahood makes no attempt to downplay the critical importance of federal financing to the NSRA and its subsidiary registered charity, the Smoking and Health Action Foundation. In the 1996-1997 fiscal year, Health Canada allocated $550,000 to the NSRA to support the organization’s research, monitoring and educational programs. That amounts to more than half of the NSRA’s $l-million budget for the same year. “Deprive us of those funds and you wound us badly, perhaps fatally,” says Mahood.

He argues that the money is well spent. The NSRA has just nine staff members, and his own annual salary of $86,723 is not particularly munificent by executive standards. More to the point, the NSRA is, according to Mahood, a cost-effective way of keeping health-care spending down because it “keeps potential tobacco victims out of the health-care system.” In support of that contention, he mentions Health Canada’s alarming prediction of three million tobacco-related deaths from the current Canadian population, most of whom will die prematurely after often lengthy—and expensive—medical care. “Imagine the enormous

financial impact if our efforts helped bring about even a one-per-cent reduction.”

Mahood’s critics do not debate that particular point. But people like Bryden are more than eager to tackle the NSRA executive director’s operation and his methods. “The Garfield Mahoods of this world have been getting a free ride for a long, long time,” maintains the Liberal MP, a former financial journalist. “They’ve benefited from an incestuous merry-go-round whereby bureaucrats fund advocacy groups to provide jobs for people who will tell the bureaucrats what they want to hear.” Bryden objects to what he claims has been a lack of accountability from organizations like the NSRA. And he takes strong issue with Mahood’s trademark hardball tactics. “He fights dirty,” says Bryden. “He’s noted for that. It’s why a lot of politicians are afraid of him.”

Whatever the merits of Bryden’s argument, it is true that Mahood can look after himself in a brawl. He was once confidentially described by Info tab, a research arm of the international tobacco industry, as “the most formidable” individual threat to the tobacco industry in the world. Another industry publication, the U.S. magazine Tobacco Reporter, termed the NSRA “one of the fiercest” anti-tobacco lobbies anywhere. Mahood makes no apologies for his confrontational behavior or his sometimes-personal attacks on opponents. “I plead guilty,” he says. “But you’ve got to remember that I’m up against a very nasty industry, one with a well-deserved international reputation for lying and deceit.” There are some leading figures, in fact, who will argue that Mahood’s acrimonious methods are precisely what has been required. “I’m a great admirer of Gar Mahood,” says Australian Dr. Nigel Gray, president of the Geneva-based International Union Against Cancer. “I’ve always thought that the most effective way to win the war against tobacco was to personalize it, go right after individual tobacco executives and lobbyists. Unfortunately, that can sometimes get unpleasant. It takes a special kind of person to do that, and Gar has done it very well.”

Perhaps that’s because he has had a lifetime to perfect his technique. Mahood has always been an ac-

complished salesman, a hustler even. The talent first appeared during high-school days in Brantford, Ont., when he organized a wildly successful series of invitational basketball tournaments. It surfaced again in Toronto. Peddling the Encyclopedia Britannica to support a young wife and infant son, he won awards for his sales. But Mahood did not really find his way until his wife, Joey, a University of Toronto student at the time, took him to an anti-Vietnam War rally in 1965. ‘That was my personal road to Damascus,” Mahood recalls. “I was a jock at the time with a lot of right-wing ideas. I’d bought into the whole Vietnam thing. But after that rally, I began to look at things a little differently.”

He was soon back in school, studying political science and sociology at York University in Toronto. Upon graduation, he spent three years as executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, then discovered the cause that would occupy him for the rest of his life. In 1974, he helped nursing instructor Rosalee Berlin set up the NSRA. The following year, he took over as executive director, a post he has held ever since. On a personal level, the road has been a little more rocky, including two failed marriages. But he has managed to achieve a measure of domestic bliss in recent years, settling into an attractive townhouse with his companion for the past decade, Helen Kenney. The house is not much more than a slapshot away from the hockey rink in Ramsden Park. Time and weather permitting, that has allowed Mahood to keep careering headlong into those rough-and-tumble corners he likes so much. □