American hero, a man who emerges from the button-down corporate world as a socially conscious protagonist in a story so dramatic that it became a winning motion picture, "The Insider," in which Russell Crowe played the role of Jeffrey Wigand. A biochemist, Dr. Wigand achieved national prominence in 1995 when he became the highest-ranking former executive to reveal company protocol about the effect of smoking on public health. In a ferocious battle with the big-money powers of the Tobacco industry, Dr. Wigand made every attempt to get around a signed confidentiality agreement with the industry that he would not divulge anything that he had learned while in tobacco employment, until he was subpoenaed by the Grand Jury to divulge the dirty little secret that insider information knew for years: cigarettes kill people. Every year, 425,000 Americans die of smoking-related illnesses. Wigand had evidence that the tobacco industry knew that tobacco was addictive, in spite of the fact that they stated otherwise in front of Congress, and that they added carcinogenic substances to enhance the impact, considering cigarettes a "nicotine delivery device."
An average-looking man with a somewhat rounded face and body, Wigand describes himself as a "plodder." He wears silver-rimmed aviator glasses, which he takes off frequently to rub his eyes. He has coarse silver hair, a small nose, and fighter's thick neck from his days as a black belt in judo. According to Wigand's brother James, a Richmond Virginia, endocrinologist, "If they think they can intimidate and threaten him, they have picked on the wrong person!" A workaholic with a stubborn depth of character, his pride at being a corporate executive making $300,000 a year turned into rage against a level of corruption which he found intolerable.
The son of a mechanical engineer, a dad who stressed independence, Jeffrey Wigand grew up in a strict Catholic home in the Bronx, the oldest of five children. Both parents were severe and he recalls that his mom raised them by the book and not the heart. As a kid, he had to control his anger when he felt that he was tolerated rather than understood and as a teenager, his rebellion accumulated. A gifted student, he flourished in the quiet atmosphere of science labs and planned to study medicine, until he exploded at home and announced that he was dropping out of college to join the Air Force.
In 1961, Wigand was posted to Misawa, an American base in Japan where he worked in the base hospital O.R. He learned Japanese and, a jogger at college, became acquainted with martial arts. Back in the States, he continued his education at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, earning his doctorate with distinction. He began work at a health-care company.
Wigand met Linda, a legal secretary, in 1970 at a judo class. They married the following year and seven months later, Linda developed multiple sclerosis. Wigand took a job testing medical equipment in Japan. He was fluent in the language and in a top position. Though Linda was disintegrating physically, she wanted their child, daughter Gretchen in 1973. Wigand searched the world for specialists, but he emotionally withdrew from his wife and baby as a form of self-protection. When they returned to the States, they separated.
He met his second wife, Lucretia, in 1981 at a sales conference at Ortho Diagnostic Systems, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, where he was a director of marketing. He was, he later remembered, attracted to her cool demeanor and willowy good looks. Lucretia was a sales rep, the daughter of two doctors. They married in 1986.
Wigand moved up the corporate ladder into more responsible positions and work stress. A perfectionist, his tendency to say what was on his mind did not endear him to management. At the same time, he played his cards close to his chest, at times not even telling Lucretia what was going on.
After 17 years in the health-care field, Wigand went to work for Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company, in December 1988 with an initial assignment of developing a new, healthier cigarette to put into a competitive market. His department budget was more than $30 million and he had a staff of 243. They moved to Louisville, bought a two-story red-brick house and he took up smoking and drinking. They had two daughters, Rachel and Nikki. Jeffrey and Lucretia tried to fit in but socially and at work, his feisty, urban, confrontational personality grated. He found his lab outdated and saw no evidence of health standards in the tobacco research. Even in the '60s, documents were beginning to claim that cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer but Wigand claimed he did not learn of these studies until later. He was the corporate man, highly paid and ambitious. Wigand soon learned that in the tobacco-patter, "increased biological activity" was code for cancer and other diseases. Notes were not allowed at certain meetings and status reports that included medical findings were screened. The litigation department had a budget in the millions to keep any case from proving that a smoker was damaged from the use of the product. The B&W personnel kept closed ranks and Wigand soon learned to trust no one.
After a year at B&W, Wigand became aware of studies done by the company in Switzerland of smoking dangers. He began to keep an extensive scientific diary. When he questioned the C.E.O. about safety standards and advertising to juveniles, the subject was dismissed. Profits from the sale of cigarettes and snuff to kids under 18 amounts to more than $200 million a year. Increasingly troubled, Wigand withdrew into a stolid isolation. To Lucretia's questions, his answer was a terse "Fine." His temper was edgy. Moreover, he and Lucretia's first daughter had spina bifida that required spinal surgery, adding stress at home.
In 1991, his evaluation at work read that he had "a difficulty in communication." He was becoming a problem with his questions and criticism. In late 1992 he objected to the use of coumarin in cigarettes when it was proved to cause cancer in rats and mice and was told that the removal would impact sales. His anger began to focus and take shape, and Wigand concentrated his research on the properties of additives. On 3/24/1993, Wigand was fired and escorted from the building, with his diary and papers confiscated.
Here is where his dilemma becomes agonizing. Wigand could not provide for his daughter’s medical bills without coverage and in order to get his severance benefits, he signed a confidentiality agreement that he would not divulge company policy. In September, B&W sued Wigand and suspended his health insurance and severance benefits, contending that he violated his confidentiality pledge by discussing the terms of his severance with another company executive. They were aware that Wigand had been called to testify as part of a 1993 U.S. Justice Department investigation into Philip Morris' "fire safe" cigarette program. They tightened their hold by insisting that Wigand sign a tougher agreement of nondisclosure.
A producer of "60 Minutes," Lowell Bergman (who was played by Al Pacino in the film) met with Wigand while producing a story on Philip Morris' "fire safe" cigarette. Bergman asked Wigand to help him interpret secret internal Philip Morris documents anonymously sent to him in late 1993.
On 2/28/1994, ABC's newsmagazine, "Day One," broadcasted a story contending that Philip Morris "spiked" the nicotine content of its cigarettes. On March 27, “60 Minutes" aired its story on the Philip Morris' research, the full impact of which was killed by Philip Morris for fear of negative legal ramifications. During the course of the story's production, Wigand was reportedly paid an estimated $12,000 for his time and expenses as a consultant. In July, The Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into possible perjury by seven top tobacco company executives who testified at April 14 congressional hearings that "nicotine is not addictive." Wigand was named as an expert defense witness for ABC. On August 3, after a summer of indecision, Wigand and his wife agree to an interview with Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes."
On August 21, ABC News agreed to a carefully worded apology for it "Day One" report on 2/28/1994 that said Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds controlled and manipulated nicotine levels to addict smokers. ABC also agreed to pay all legal fees – an amount that totaled some $15 million, rather than face a libel suit that would cost a great deal more.
Through September, producer Bergman held meetings with Mike Wallace, company executives and CBS lawyers to review his investigation, bursting to report his story but afraid of meeting with crippling lawsuits from big tobacco.
They had a $15 billion gun pointed at their heads. Parts of the Wigand transcript leaked to the New York Daily News. Wigand reportedly said that B&W Tobacco Corp. had vetoed plans to make a safer cigarette and continued to use a flavoring in pipe tobacco known to cause cancer in lab animals. Moreover, he supposedly said the company's former CEO Thomas Sandefur was guilty of perjury when he told Congress that nicotine was not addictive.
Wigand agreed to talk to The Wall Street Journal with his name not quoted, which printed essentially the story that "60 Minutes" found too hot to tackle, that internal reports showed that leading U.S. tobacco companies enhance nicotine delivery to smokers by adding ammonia-based compounds to cigarettes, chemicals that increase the potency of the nicotine inhaled. In 1996, the Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for this story. On November 9, The New York Times reported that CBS lawyers ordered "60 Minutes" not to air the Wigand interview. Three days later, Mike Wallace went on the air with the following statement: "We at '60 Minutes' – and that's about 100 of us who turn out this broadcast each week – are proud of working here and at CBS News, and so we were dismayed that the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action against us by a tobacco industry giant. We've broadcast many such investigative pieces down the years, and we want to be able to continue. We lost out, only to some degree on this one, but we haven't the slightest doubt that we'll be able to continue the '60 Minutes' tradition of reporting such pieces in the future without fear or favor." November 29: At the request of anti-tobacco plaintiffs' lawyers, Jeffrey Wigand provided a deposition in a civil action against tobacco manufacturers brought by the state of Mississippi. The state sought reimbursement for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses over the years. Wigand supported previously publicized contentions that Brown & Williamson lawyers improperly controlled research programs in an effort to limit potential liability in injury lawsuits filed against the company.
1994 was a year of hell for Wigand. He was out of work and being threatened and slandered. He was drinking heavily and his marriage was suffering badly from the fallout of his public battle as well as the illness of his daughter. One night in October 1994 when Jeffrey and Lucretia were both drinking, worried about losing their medical coverage and stressed by the harassment in their lives, they had a huge fight with the kids screaming and the police on the way. Whatever happened that night, they both blame B&W for placing an unbearable strain on their marriage, one that led to a later divorce. The Wall Street Journal obtained a copy of the Mississippi deposition and published it in full on their web site on 1/26/1995. By now, there was no longer any way to stop the critical substance of Wigand's testimony and on 2/04/1996, Mike Wallace released the full story on "60 Minutes."
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