The man who smoked big tobacco

Jeffrey Wigand is still on a crusade to tell the truth about tobacco.

And even after paying a heavy price for having done so, he said he would do it all again if he had to.

Wigand, the former Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. (B&W) executive whose story was told in the movie “The Insider,” brought his crusade to Penn Oct. 23 as the kickoff event for Academic Integrity Week.

The University Honor Council, which organized Academic Integrity Week, brought Wigand to campus as an object lesson in the virtues inherent in following one’s own moral compass.

In his speech, Wigand painted a picture of tobacco companies as cynical, manipulative outfits that know all too well that if the public knew the facts about their products, they would be out of business soon.

As Wigand put it, “Tobacco is the only product that, when used as intended, kills you.”
A scientist by training, Wigand was hired by B&W to develop a safer cigarette. In the process, he and his fellow scientists did research that blew gaping holes in tobacco-industry arguments about safety, health and marketing.

When B&W called lawyers in to revise the research to fit the company line, Wigand began to have doubts about his work. In 1993, B&W fired him, with a stipulation in his severance agreement that he could not discuss tobacco at all without clearing it with the firm and without a B&W lawyer present.

But after “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman approached him in 1994 about participating in a story documenting the tobacco executives’ cover-up, he became increasingly convinced he had to go public with what he knew. In August of 1995, he agreed to cooperate.

What happened after that makes for a gripping tale. “My children received death threats,” he said, and B&W smeared Wigand and questioned his integrity. B&W also threatened CBS with a $15 billion lawsuit — a threat to which the network succumbed. The story might have remained untold had someone not leaked to The Wall Street Journal a copy of the CBS transcript and B&W’s smear materials.

The whole episode helped bolster the case of the 39 state attorneys general who had sued the tobacco companies, a suit which ended in a landmark multibillion-dollar settlement.
The whole episode, he said, is an example of “what happens when people have a total absence of integrity.”

Wigand, who is now a high-school teacher, concluded by saying, “I have no regrets. If what I did results in one child being unfettered from nicotine addiction, then I’ve done my job.”


Originally published on November 9, 2000