MONTREAL - In Quebec Superior Court on Thursday, Jean-Louis Mercier, the co-president of Imperial Tobacco in the 80s and 90s, was asked about the dangers of smoking. Mercier's answers baffled anti-tobacco activists.

While Mercier didn't recall many details, this exchange dominated his testimony:

Q: What are the effects of nicotine?

"I don't know the debate was just starting."

Q: So what was Imperial Tobacco's position on nicotine?

"Our position was that it did not create dependency."

As late as in the early 90s, the retired CEO says their focus was still on the health risks. But his opinions about cigarette haven't changed. According to Mercier, stopping is easy.

"There are withdrawal symptoms for alcohol and drugs, but not on tobacco. In fact, my son just stopped smoking just like that," said Mercier. "Withdrawal, that's all in the head."

As the class-action lawsuit against big tobacco continues, many in the audience were perplexed by Mercier.

"Everyone knew, except the tobacco companies, about the health effect of smoking. That's very interesting," said Mario Bujold, speaking for the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health.

Mercier remained unmoved, even when confronted with top-secret documents from his company. The documents showed how the company tried to figure out how to adapt their marketing in a world where smoking was falling out of favour.

Imperial Tobacco's response under Mercier: shift the blame.

"With 66 per cent of the retail cigarette dollar in Canada going into direct tobacco taxation, who really is the tobacco industry?" read the document.

Mercier said that the government was responsible for the health-related issues.

The stakes are high for the tobacco companies as the trial will last at least two years. If the judge rules that the tobacco companies misled the public and the governments, they could face billions of dollars in settlements.