Tobacco got burned as it met its match
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer
Jeffrey Wigand reluctantly takes a pack of Marlboro that's a prop for a TV shot. "I don't like to hold these suckers," he says bluntly, turning the pack over in his hands.
"I can turn over my Twinkie and find out what's in it," he said. "Can you turn over a Marlboro pack and do that?
Don't call Jeffrey Wigand a hero. Or a whistle blower. Or even a celebrity.
Though his commitment to the truth helped force America's big tobacco companies to negotiate a staggering $200 billion settlement with 39 states three years ago, Wigand sees himself as only one of the many people who made that happen.
"I did what was right for me," he said Tuesday at the 2001 Hawai'i Tobacco Control Conference conducted by the State Department of Health. "Many people made it possible for what we're doing today."
The movie "The Insider," starring Russell Crowe, was based on Wigand's story.
It laid out how he worked covertly with Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and media outlets to document the way tobacco company executives tried to cover up their knowledge of the danger of cigarettes.
His code name?
"What do you do with what you know?" asked the former Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. executive rhetorically. "It's an ethical question we all have."
At first, said Wigand, he chose to look the other way.
But he couldn't continue doing that after his employer ignored new information that one specific chemical they were adding to cigarettes induced lung tumors. Instead of taking it out, the company fired him, and kept the chemical in the cigarettes, he said.
His eventual decision to share what he knew was part of feeling he had a "higher obligation to the public" than to his employer.
Although the movie compresses the actions of four years, Wigand said it's a fairly accurate portrayal of the devastation that followed, including the breakup of his family, threats against his life, lawsuits and smear campaigns against him, and corporate pressure against CBS' "60 Minutes" to keep his interview off the air.
Wigand said the ultimate vindication occurred when the state attorneys general refused to accept a settlement with the tobacco companies unless it included an agreement to drop legal action against Wigand.
Wigand, a research biochemist who thought he was working to create a safer cigarette, became truly aware of the dangers of smoking only when he saw some of the data the tobacco company had access to. For a few months, he even smoked: One of the "perks" of the job was as many free cartons of cigarettes as he wanted.
Now he travels the country speaking to school students "about making responsible choices."
But he said the next challenge is for each one of us: "Clearly let Congress know that you want this product regulated."
Wigand had high praise for Hawai'i's use of the $40 million to $52 million a year for 25 years that the state receives from the settlement, and said he considers Hawai'i one of the "top 10 states" in putting the money to the proper use. Sixty percent of the Hawai'i dollars go to public health, with 25 percent of that amount going into a perpetual endowment for tobacco prevention and control programs.