Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand goes on the record about ‘The Insider’

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Baltimore Post-Examiner interviewed Jeffrey S. Wigand P.h. D., former Vice President of Research & Development for Brown & Williamson (Reynolds American Inc.) from 1989-93.  Today, Wigand, 72, teaches and lectures around the world and works as a consultant for various tobacco issues. He is passionate about devoting time to his non-profit company Smoke-Free Kids Inc, an organization that helps children to make healthy choices regarding tobacco use.

Wigand was the first whistleblower from a major tobacco company to go on the record alleging B&W (and presumably others) used chemicals that were GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) to increase the addictiveness of their products and was portrayed by Russell Crowe in Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider. The FDA GRAS designation was never intended to be used in a burning product such as a cigarette.

The film depicts a three-year journey Wigand reluctantly embarked on after being fired by the late Thomas Sandefur, who was then CEO. Evidence suggests he was fired for raising concerns over a compound called Coumarin that increased the risk of cancer.

Following his termination, Wigand and his family were subjected to death threats, and he was the target of frivolous lawsuits as well as attempts to tarnish his reputation.

Wigand was summoned by the Department of Justice [Civil Investigative Demand] to testify on conspiracy of tobacco companies to not develop a fire safe cigarette in 1995 and was subpoenaed to testify at a deposition in Pascagoula, Mississippi regarding fire-safe cigarettes, where he received a subpoena from the state’s attorney general mandating he immediately appear as witness in suit aimed at reimbursing Mississippi for treating smoking-related illnesses.

CBS 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman and correspondent Mike Wallace interviewed Wigand in August 1995. Parts of the movie are based exclusively on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Wigand said the film was mostly accurate with a few discrepancies.

The movie is accurate in terms of the psychology, philosophy and emotional status of time, he said.  It accurately captures these elements while collapsing multiple events into a single event in the film. The essence of the movie is correct with respect to the events and tenor of CBS, B&W and Wigand, he said.

BPE: Did Lowell Bergman originally contact you about analyzing fire-safe cigarette documents from Phillip Morris?

WIGAND: Initially, I refused to meet with Bergman but ultimately met him at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KY. He showed me a sample of the material he received anonymously from Mr. Butts. These were “smoking gun” type docs. They were all from PM and I agreed to review all the documents and then negotiated a work contract with CBS 60 Minutes lawyers that included a confidentiality agreement for my work with compensation and absolutely no questions about B & W.

Jeffery Wigand (Courtesy photo from Wigand)
Jeffrey Wigand (Courtesy photo from Wigand)

I reviewed and analyzed more than 2,000 documents that showed PM had developed & tested a reduced ignition propensity cigarette in 1975 that looked like a Marlboro, tasted like a Marlboro, but cost less to make than a Marlboro! I then participated in the 60 Minutes segment on fire safe cigarettes with correspondent Mike Wallace, “Up in Smoke”, which aired in March 1994.

BPE: Were you fired from B&W in 1993 in part for clashing with CEO Thomas E. Sandefur over Coumarin?

WIGAND: Yes, it was over a specific additive called Coumarin not to be confused with Coumadin that was banned by the FDA in the 1950s as being toxic to the liver of dogs and masked foul odors.

During my tenure there were multiple clashes with Sandefur over: safer cigarette development, medical advisory board, forced smoking of tainted cigarettes by R & D staff, lawyer control of scientific reports and a lawyer (J. Kendrick Wells, III) who did not attend the group scientific meeting in Vancouver, Canada, attended only by scientists of all the BAT (British-American Tobacco) companies who changed the minutes of the meeting because there were admissions that would be beneficial to an adversary in court.

These admissions were that nicotine was addictive and smoking causes a myriad of diseases were daily mantra within B&W and the BAT companies. Coumarin was the last straw so to speak that pushed me over the tipping point.

The tobacco industry used Coumarin through 1988 and in that year B&W took it out of KOOL but continued using it in a product called Sir Walter Raleigh Aromatic Pipe Tobacco because pipe tobacco was not a cigarette and therefore did not come under the Cigarette Labeling Act and therefore felt they didn’t need to disclose it.

MV5BMjI2NjA5Mzc4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODUxNjcxMTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_However, when I came on board in 1989, R&D was trying to find a substitute (empirically with numerous failures). In August 1992, I received a draft copy of a national toxicology program report that classifies chemicals as potential carcinogens and this report specifically analyzed Coumarin.

I hired a toxicologist who was already on board and who confirmed my calculations. Then I went to Sandefur with both sets of calculations and said: ‘Coumarin needs to come out of the product as it puts people at risk of incremental harm.’ Sandefur told me that it was his decision whether to leave it in or take it out and that I was to go back to the laboratory to find a substitute and that was my job. (Taking Coumarin out of Sir Walter Raleigh Aromatic Pipe Tobacco would change the taste and that would cause a decrease in sales). Subsequently, I wrote a memo that has never been found disagreeing with his decision on a moral and scientific basis. In January 1993, Sandefur became the new CEO and canned me in March.

BPE: In the film, Sandefur summoned you to B&W after termination requesting you sign an expanded confidentiality agreement where you were accompanied by in-house counsel and subjected to threats regarding termination of severance pay, medical benefits, and possible litigation if you refused or violated the previous agreement. Is that how it went down?

WIGAND: That’s somewhat of a dramatic license. I never got called in to be warned of my secrecy agreement but I was sued in a Louisville court in September 1993 for violating the secrecy component of my employment contract for disclosing my salary. B&W stopped my heath care benefits and salary continuation. As a condition of dropping the law suit, I was forced to sign a draconian agreement for reinstatement of critical healthcare benefits & salary continuation. But I got nothing for it, except they temporarily took the 800-pound gorilla off me.

TheInsider1999m-HDBPE: Were you followed by a B&W associate while hitting balls at a driving range late at night?

WIGAND: No but B&W hired an ex-FBI agent [from the Louisville office] and the way I knew he was following me is that I had done some work for Oldham County D.A., John Findley, whose wife was a biology teacher at the same school (DuPont Manual) where I was teaching (following termination from B&W and assisting with a criminal investigation) and I told him: ‘John I have the license plate number of this white Monte Carlo that’s just constantly on my ass,’ so I gave it to him and it turned out to be an ex-FBI agent employed by B&W. And he followed me back and forth until I figured out who he was, but I had bodyguards (ex- Secret Service agents) by that time.

BPE: Did you and your family get an anonymous death threat on your personal computer followed by a bullet in the mailbox?

WIGAND: There were three specific death threats, two by phone in April 1994 (one from the B&W Tower and the other from Baptist Hospital East) then the bullet in the mail box in January 1996. There were numerous threats made to the school where I was teaching which caused the school to be evacuated and they put a sheriff’s deputy at my classroom door because of threats that came into the school. Everything the Louisville FBI erroneously stated regarding my involvement with the bullet was contradicted by the Washington, DC FBI and they were unable to find any link on my computer to the threat. The hard drive from my computer was also analyzed by another expert and corroborated what the DC FBI concluded. This expert also found a letter from my ex-wife to the lawyers of B&W that disclosed personal information that was useful to B&W.

BPE: So there was a direct link to B&W?

WIGAND: Yes. I previously told B&W’s legal office I was being contacted by Congress and that they were asking me for help understanding cigarette science. But I honored the agreement until I got death threats. While I can’t prove it, there seemed to be a link between the two events.

BPE: Did the FBI agents in charge of the investigation act as if they might be tied to B&W?

WIGAND: I think they had some screwy things going on in Louisville, but I am not party to all that was going on. The bullet in my mailbox was in January 1996, but threats were going on all over. My divorce lawyer’s office (Joe Mobley) was ransacked, so they knew I was there, even though I never told anybody; but I was obviously followed. The agent who filed the report acted as if he was the source from the start with evaluating the data)

BPE: Did this event finally convince you to go on the record?

WIGAND: What convinced me to go on the record was that in June 1995 I was asked to be a scientific referee for a series of journal articles coming out of UC San Francisco and I saw documents I had been denied at B&W. I authenticated the documents in June and had also worked for the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington DC who was representing ABC in a libel case initiated by Phillip Morris. I was the scientific expert and reviewed PM documents. There was no difference in behavior between PM, BAT, and B&W.

BPE: So that was the impetus to go on the record with 60 Minutes?

WIGAND: That was one of the factors that caused me to go on the record with 60 Minutes and interview with Mike Wallace. I did this with the caveat that I could maintain custody and control of the taping until such time that I had a lawyer and had gotten out of Louisville. But that actually didn’t happen and in November I was summoned to give a deposition in Mississippi by the US Department of Justice on fire safe cigarettes. At the same time, I was served a subpoena by Attorney General Mike Moore (to testify as witness on behalf of the state in a suit aimed at reimbursing Mississippi for treating smoking related illnesses).

Al Pacino and Russell Crowe star in "The Insider." (Publicity Photo)
Al Pacino and Russell Crowe star in “The Insider.” (Publicity Photo)

BPE: Did B&W’s attorney attempt to cut you off during testimony and did Ron Motley (anti- tobacco attorney) explode in similar fashion as portrayed on film?

WIGAND: First of all, there must have been thirty tobacco lawyers there and the threats from Tom Bezanson from Chadbourne & Parke representing Brown & Williamson were constant. He kept objecting to my testimony in attempt to silence me. And Ron Motley, for whom I have tremendous respect for, just kept on going and didn’t let the tobacco industry lawyer intimidate him as they had done with many other lawyers. To answer your question, it was a little bit more dramatic, but yes.

BPE: Did 60 Minutes initially refuse to air your interview and instead run an alternate program due to the potential threat of litigation from B&W for tortious interference (legal term referring to a situation where one party is encouraged to break an agreement with another by a third party) thus threatening the merger between CBS and Westinghouse?

WIGAND: Yes, CBS was in the process of being acquired by Westinghouse and there was some greed involved in this process. And if you have a $15 billion lawsuit for tortious interference, that would change the balance sheet and amount earned from the acquisition. But tortious interference was never an issue. Also, at the same time, which is not widely known, B&W and Liggett are conducting a $150 million product transfer. Liggett was part of Loews Corporation and one of the defendants in the litigation was the Tisch family. (Andrew Tisch was CEO of the Lorillard Tobacco Company). The confluence of issues were as follows: B&W is dealing with a parent company of CBS for a $150 million product transfer, DOJ was looking at Andrew Tisch for perjury relating to his April 1994 testimony at the Waxman hearings, Westinghouse is trying to buy the whole cabal, and nobody wants to have a $15 billion lawsuit for airing an interview with Jeff Wigand.

BPE: Did B&W hire a PR guru to dig up possible dirt on you in an effort to discredit your testimony in Mississippi and subsequently share it with The Wall Street Journal?

WIGAND: Yeah, John Scanlon. He was hired to market a 500-page dossier (alleging spousal- abuse, shoplifting, traffic violations etc.) that was prepared by several law firms at a cost of about $8.2 million that would be used to try me in the court of public opinion. But The Wall Street Journal didn’t buy it. So they set the record straight, refuted the accusations, and published it on the front page in January 1996. Also, at the same time, The Wall Street Journal anonymously received a full copy of the [sealed] deposition from my Mississippi testimony. The Journal was threatened with litigation if they disclosed it, but basically ignored the threats. And when they published the full content of the Mississippi deposition, which was the same as the August 5th interview with 60 Minutes, B&W went apoplectic.

BPE: How did you feel when 60 Minutes finally ran the full segment with your interview?

WIGAND: I felt great.

BPE: Did Lowell Bergman leak private CBS discussions to The New York Times divulging management’s decision not to air the interview as portrayed on film, and did that embarrassment also contribute to their change of heart?

WIGAND: I don’t think he leaked anything.

BPE: Finally, I want to discuss your current activities. What have you been doing since then?

WIGAND: I went back to the University of Louisville and received a master’s degree in teaching MAT. I taught biology, physics, chemistry, and Japanese at DuPont Manual High School, (a school of national academic excellence). In 1996, I was teacher of the year for the District of Jefferson County, the state of Kentucky, and 1 of 51 awarded National Teacher of the Year.

I formed Smoke-Free Kids in April 1998 because I felt that my teaching skills and knowledge of tobacco science could teach more children how to make healthy choices and educate policy makers. I also work around the world with ministers of health, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, universities, law schools, and medical schools in developing policies that reduce the toll of tobacco products and protect children.

One thought on “Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand goes on the record about ‘The Insider’

  • May 1, 2023 at 9:43 AM

    Pretty bizzare interview if you ask me

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