The Man Who Knew Too Much: Jeffrey Wigand takes on Big Tobacco

Marie Brenner, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Vanity Fair, May 1996. “Angrily, painfully, Jeffrey Wigand emerged from the sealed world of Big Tobacco to confront the nation’s third-largest cigarette company, Brown & Williamson. Hailed as a hero by anti-smoking forces and vilified by the tobacco industry, Wigand is [1996] at the center of an epic multi-billion-dollar struggle that reaches from Capitol Hill to the hallowed journalistic halls of CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Excerpts from story:

[At Brown & Williamson] there was neither a toxicologist nor a physicist on staff, a fact which Wigand found very unsettling. How, he thought, could you be serious about studying the health aspects of tobacco or fire safety without the proper experts? According to documents that later wound up in the University of California at San Francisco library, even in the 1960s research had been done for B&W which tobacco activists say proved that cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer. However, Wigand says that he did not learn of those studies until after he left the company….

Shortly after Wigand was hired, he was sent to an orientation session on tobacco-litigation matters at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a Kansas City law firm that specializes in defending lawsuits for the industry. The firm is reputed to have its own in-house scientists and tobacco researchers. Shook, Hardy & Bacon and B&W lawyers were aware of the dangers that the company’s research could pose in a lawsuit. B&W lawyers had devised an ingenious method for avoiding discovery of sensitive information: have it “shipped offshore”—a practice one attorney referred to as “document management.” It was the suggestion of Kendrick Wells, an attorney in B&W’s legal department, that staff be told that this effort was “to remove deadwood,” and that no one “should make any notes, memos or lists.” Wigand later testified that another law firm, Covington & Burling, sometimes edited scientific information on additives….

According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, 3 million Americans under the age of 18 consume one billion packs of cigarettes and 26 million containers of snuff ever year. For a cigarette company, the potential for profits from these sales—illegal in all 50 states—is immense, more than $200 million a year. Wigand came to feel increasingly that there was “no sense of responsibility” on the subject of teenagers and smoking. He was disturbed by a report that on the average children begin to smoke by 14….

For Wigand, the critical moment occurred when he read a report from the National Toxicology Program. The subject was coumarin, an additive that had been shown to have a carcinogenic property which caused tumors in rats and mice. The makeup of coumarin was close to that of a compound found in rat poison, but until 1992 no one understood the possible dangers. The new report described its carcinogenic effect. When Wigand read this in late 1992, his first reaction was “We have got to get this stuff out of the pipe tobacco.” One of B&W’s products was Sir Walter Raleigh. Wigand told 60 Minutes that when he went to a meeting with Sandefur [CEO of Brown & Williamson], Sandefur told him that removing it would impact sales. Wigand got the impression that Sandefur would do nothing immediately to alter the product, so he sought out his toxicologist, Scott Appleton. Wigand says he asked him to write a memo backing him up, but Appleton refused, perhaps afraid for his job. (Appleton declined to comment.)…

In June 1994, The New York Times had run long articles based on thousands of pages taken from B&W—the cache of papers copied at a Louisville law office by Merrell Williams. Only in July 1995 did the University of California and tobacco expert Stanton Glantz put the documents on the Internet after successfully fighting off a serious lawsuit brought by B&W….

At a time when the anti-tobacco forces wanted to make him a hero, he had isolated himself from everyone, including his own family,” Palladino [criminal investigator] said. “Lock up all these papers and diaries before someone steals them,” Palladino told him when he visted his home office. When Palladino relayed to Wigand the charges about him being detailed in phone calls to reporters, Wigand responded angrily, “What kind of bullshit is this?” Once Palladino realized what was happening to Wigand, he instructed the entire staff to put aside whatever they were working on and check every aspect of Wigand’s past. “This is a war,” Palladino said.