|March 3, 2000
Volume 30 Number 14
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
"Sue the bastards," Jeffry Wigand said in response to a student's question about whether or not to take action against a tobacco company over the smoking- related death of a family member. "That's the only way we finally got the information out there."
The award-winning humanitarian, biochemist, and teacher was the subject of the film The Insider (nominated for seven academy awards).
Wigand is the highest-ranking former executive of the tobacco industry to publicly address that industry's disregard for health and safety.
Twice speaking to the news show 60 Minutes, he's lost his $300,000- a-year-job, his marriage, and his personal freedom. Over the last ten years, Wigand, his children, and his lawyer have been victims of repeated death threats, wiretaps, break-ins, and surveillance while he negotiated a labyrinth of lawsuits and jail threats to become a key witness in ground-breaking tobacco litigation.
Still, said the man who's learned to pull no punches, he, too, at first looked the other way, before it got to the point where, he said, "I had to speak out."
It was this journey, from silence to justice, that Wigand focused on Thursday night in Harlen Adams Theatre, as guest of the North Valley Tobacco Prevention Center and the CSU, Chico School of Nursing. He described himself as "an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances."
Wigand worked for twenty-five years in the health care industry, many of them in senior management positions, before serving as vice president for research and development for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, owned by the billion-dollar BAT Industries.
Up until then, there had never been a successful public lawsuit against the industry Wigand calls "the most unregulated in this country." At Brown & Williamson, the response to public outcries over risks to tobacco users reflected this confidence.
While outwardly the company mouthed the platitude that "tobacco is for taste," the internal mantra, Wigand noted was, "if we hook 'em young, we hook 'em for life." It was common internal knowledge that cigarettes and related products, with more than 400 chemical additives, were highly toxic and addictive.
Yet when an eighteen-page internal report Wigand helped draft (as senior scientist he was seeking to address these health risks) reached the CEO's desk, his suggestions for cleaning up the product had the top brass squirming. The problem was in admitting, on paper, that there even were such risks.
To ensure this sort of thing would never happen again, the company white-washed the report, as Wigand put it, "into two pages of vanilla," and required that in the future, no such meetings could be held without lawyers present to monitor/cleanup the findings.
"I didn't know what to do," admits Wigand. He not only enjoyed the financial security of his job, but he also needed the medical benefits for an ill child. "So I turned my head and looked the other way."
But another internal report, this time focusing on the dangers of an additive still used in pipe tobacco that had been banned in cigarettes, sent his CEO through the roof. Wigand was summarily terminated, and left to fight for his benefits and medical coverage.
Brown & Williamson made it a condition of receiving those benefits that Wigand sign a paper severely restricting his ability to speak out against the industry.
It was the "Catch 22" of Wigand's life, whether to hold to that silence in the next few years and retain medical benefits for his family, or share his insider's knowledge of how tobacco products were designed and marketed to ignore the well-known health risks.
There followed his first episode talking to 60 Minutes, and then the astounding April 1994 Congressional hearing when seven top tobacco executives swore to the nation they didn't believe nicotine was addictive, or that smoking presented any risks.
Watching this farce, Wigand knew that he was complicit: "By my silence, I was as guilty as the men on my screen." He spoke again to 60 Minutes, in the well- publicized 1995 episode that was killed due to CBS affiliations with the tobacco industry.
The gist of his interview was leaked to the press, however, and Wigand was sued for breach of contract with Brown & Williamson.
It was during this time, when he was asked to be a key witness (the attorneys general of forty states had litigation against the tobacco industry), that he was most hounded for speaking out. He was routinely followed, had threats made on his and his children's lives, had his phone tapped, and his briefcase stolen.
Armed guards stood on his lawyer's lawn the day he was to testify in court, and afterwards he faced the real threat of jail time. In fact, Wigand said, most of the incidents in The Insider actually happened, and he lived the movie's experience of menace and fear.
"But I decided nobody could tell me I couldn't talk to my government," Wigand said about his testimony that helped win the $240-billion settlement.
Although Wigand was not jailed, and was, in fact, allowed to return to his job teaching high school (he was named Teacher of the Year in 1996), he is far from finished speaking out.
The settlement, said Wigand, is a drop in the bucket to industry profits. Not only was the loss offset by a price hike of thirty-five cents a carton, but money that is regulated out of profits in the United States is merely shunted into more money-making marketing overseas.
Wigand's graphic paraphrase of the tobacco industry's party line, "Get the dumb, black, and ignorant -- we don't smoke this shit," leads to his biggest concern, the children who continue to be targeted as consumers, to the extent that Wigand calls nicotine addiction "a pediatric disease."
Having launched efforts to educate the young through his non-profit agency, Smoke Free Kids, Wigand said he's finding out what "young" really means. Although 85 percent of smokers start before age eighteen, reaching pre-teens is not early enough for big tobacco companies.
"Children's impressions of tobacco are laid by age six," he noted, "and 30 percent of three-year-olds recognize Joe Camel over Ronald McDonald."
Education, then, has to happen very early if we hope to protect children from the aggressive lure of tobacco advertising. And with this in mind, Wigand urged the audience to find out just what California's $22-billion share of settlement funds will be used for.
It's an ongoing battle. "The industry spends lots of bucks to clean up their image," he said about the millions spent on public relations, "but does that give them a license to kill 200,000 a year?"
Wigand doesn't think so. He faced corporate America, and the consequences of speaking out will be with him for the rest of his life. "But my moral principles were uncompromised," Wigand said."When they say there are no additives in a cigarette," Wigand laughed in response to a student's question, "they're just blowing smoke." -- ZV
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