First things first: Jeffrey Wigand doesn’t like being called a whistle-blower.
Unfortunately, his name is nearly synonymous with the term. He’s the one-time tobacco executive who made front-page news when he revealed that his former employer knew exactly how addictive and lethal cigarettes were. He delivered a damning deposition in a Mississippi courtroom that eventually led to the tobacco industry’s $246 billion litigation settlement. His David-and-Goliath story was even made into a critically acclaimed movie, The Insider, starring Russell Crowe. Still, Wigand detests the label.
“The word whistle-blower suggests that you’re a tattletale or that you’re somehow disloyal,” he says. “But I wasn’t disloyal in the least bit. People were dying. I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility.”
He simply told the truth, he says, about what he saw and experienced as the head of research and development for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. (B& W), the country’s third-largest tobacco company — how the company misled consumers about the highly addictive nature of nicotine, how it ignored research indicating that some of the additives used to improve flavor caused cancer, how it encoded and hid documents that could be used against the company in lawsuits brought by sick or dying smokers.
Wigand paid dearly for going public. Amid lawsuits, countersuits, and an exhaustive smear campaign orchestrated by the company, Wigand lost his family, his privacy, and his reputation. His wife divorced him, and their two daughters went to live with her. Eventually, he left Louisville, Kentucky and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to start over. He was on his own for the first time in years. “I had to heal,” says Wigand, now 59. “I didn’t want to come out of this experience bitter.”
Six years after the 60 Minutes interview in which he told Mike Wallace that B& W was “a nicotine-delivery business,” Wigand remains an outspoken insider and critic of big tobacco. But things are different now. He no longer requires around-the-clock bodyguards. He has reconciled with his children. And no, he doesn’t sound bitter. That’s because he has been vindicated “10 times over,” he says, largely because of the movie. “It gave me a tremendous amount of credibility and a much larger platform.”
If anything, Wigand is even more candid these days as an antitobacco advocate. There are no longer lawsuits and injunctions out to muffle him. Ever since The Insider came out in 1999, Wigand has been in demand. He speaks at dozens of schools a year, from elementary schools to business schools. He addresses local and national health organizations here and abroad. He urges physicians to chart their patients’ smoking habits and lobbies Hollywood types to eliminate smoking in films. Some groups cover travel expenses only. Others pay his $10,000 speaker’s fee, which funds a nonprofit he started called Smoke-Free Kids.
Because much of his audience is too young for the R-rated movie, Wigand developed a free educational video with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. Since last year, the CDC has sent out 30,000 copies of Secrets Through the Smoke. Wigand doesn’t have a problem with adults who choose to smoke; they know the risks. But not children. They need to understand just how addictive and dangerous smoking — or chewing tobacco or dip — is and how savvy tobacco ads are at promoting the image of fun, fashionable, and healthy tobacco users. “The tobacco companies target underage kids,” says Wigand, “because they know that if they hook them young, they hook them for life.”
Today, Wigand is holding court in the library at the Randolph School, a private school in Huntsville, Alabama. Speaking to about 130 middle-school students, he is as animated, intense, and blunt as ever. “I figure that a third of you have already tried smoking, and a third of those are addicted,” he says.
Wigand, who has a PhD in biochemistry, is a former teacher of the year in Kentucky. Unable to find a corporate job after his stint at B& W, he took a job at duPont Manual High School, in Louisville, where he taught science and Japanese for $30,000 a year — one-tenth of his former salary. In Huntsville, he doesn’t talk down to his young audience. He describes how the tobacco industry “obfuscates the truth” about its lethal products. “It’s the only product that when used as intended, kills you,” he says, a line he returns to throughout the day.
In his rapid-fire Bronx accent, he recites a litany of statistics. The number of people in the U.S. who die each year from smoking-related illnesses: 430,000. The percentage of adult smokers who started before they turned 18: 80% to 90%. The amount of money tobacco companies spend on advertising each year: more than $8 billion. The percentage of 6-year-olds surveyed who associated Joe Camel with smoking: 91%.
“What do you do with the knowledge I’ve shared with you?” he asks. He mentions that students in Florida and elsewhere have started antismoking programs that have helped reduce the number of underage smokers. “Can kids in Alabama do this?” he asks.
“Yes,” the students reply in unison.
For two days, he tirelessly repeats that message in various classes and at an evening lecture open to the public. He argues that the tobacco settlement was a step in the right direction but didn’t go far enough. The agreement didn’t limit tobacco ads. It didn’t earmark settlement money for tobacco education and control. Alabama, he explains, spends more money taking care of sick smokers than it generates through cigarette taxes. “Is that good business?” he asks. “No, it’s not.”
He urges students and parents to get involved, to ask their legislators to use the settlement funds responsibly (ideally, a sizeable percentage would go toward tobacco control), to educate less fortunate students in Huntsville, and to “denormalize” tobacco and lobby for regulation. “If someone were to introduce this product today, it would be regulated,” he says. “But because tobacco has been a part of our economic fabric for more than 200 years, it’s not.”
Speaking out still has its rewards, he says. For instance, the week before, he saved two lives. He was a visiting lecturer at Auburn University’s school of management. At the end of one presentation, a young woman handed Wigand a pack of cigarettes and declared, “I’m quitting.” Later, another student stopped him on the elevator to tell him the same thing.
Says Achilles Armenakis, the ethics professor at Auburn who invited Wigand and watched him talk to students practically nonstop from 8 in the morning until 8 at night: “I know for a fact that he saved more than that.”
Maybe it’s the ever-increasing popularity of Russell Crowe or the renewed interest in corporate ethics. For whatever reason, Wigand receives dozens of emails a day responding to his story, like these:
Thank you for your efforts because I do believe they make a difference when speaking to our young people. Your words did not help me because by the time I heard what you had to say, I was hopelessly ADDICTED. At 55 yrs, I am still a smoker.
I don’t know how any of us can truly put into words our gratitude for what you have done.
If our country had more dedicated professionals such as yourself, we would not have the corporate immorality that has been exhibited by the tobacco companies and now Enron.
Not surprisingly, Wigand also hears from fellow and would-be whistle-blowers. Some thank him for inspiring them to speak out. Others seek advice. They’re unsure about coming forward. “I tell them, ‘Whether or not you do is your choice,” he says. “You have to do what your moral compass tells you to do. But understand that the bigger nut you take on, the tougher the resistance.’ “
Ultimately, his advice comes back to his story: “I never expected death threats against me and my family. I never expected to find a bullet in my mailbox. I never expected a 500-page dossier that was part of a campaign to ruin me. But guess what? We were successful.”
On the subject of Enron’s Sherron Watkins, he is adamant that she doesn’t deserve the praise that the media has lavished on her. She wrote an excellent memo outlining her concerns, he says, but it was an internal memo to then-CEO Kenneth Lay. She didn’t go far enough for Wigand. She didn’t go to the media or, more important, to the SEC. “She turned around, sat back down, and shut up,” he says. “I don’t think what she did was right.”
At times, the only thing gray about Wigand is his beard. “Either you’re part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution,” he says. “If you think you’re moral and your company is immoral, you’re by definition amoral.”
However, his own decision to speak out was anything but straightforward. Following a 25-year career in health care at companies like Pfizer and Union Carbide, Wigand had been recruited by a headhunter to join B& W in 1989 to develop a safer cigarette. A year later, the program was scrapped. Over the next two years, he learned how the company engineered its products to make them more appealing and more addictive and used additives that it knew posed serious health risks — all the while denying that. He had never seen such corporate duplicity. Exasperated and disillusioned, he too wrote a sharply worded memo to his boss, then-CEO Thomas E. Sandefur. And in March 1993, citing “a difficulty in communication,” Sandefur fired Wigand.
But Wigand didn’t contact the media or the government initially, because doing so would have violated his confidentiality agreement with the company and cost him his severance package. One of his daughters suffered from spina bifida and required daily medical treatment. He needed the health benefits. “There was never an epiphany,” he says of his decision to go public. “It was more incremental.” There was Sandefur’s testifying before Congress alongside six other tobacco company CEOs that nicotine wasn’t addictive, although Wigand knew that his boss had known for years that it was addictive. There were the B& W documents that had been made public by a paralegal named Merrell Williams that corroborated Wigand’s account. There were the antitobacco lawsuits that needed his expert testimony.
When he finally agreed to the 60 Minutes interview and to testify in the Mississippi antitobacco suit, he had no idea how or if his life would return to normal. He was facing lawsuits by B& W and anonymous death threats. “I couldn’t have engineered the way this has played out,” he says. “No way.”
Wigand can’t simply go away and let the tobacco industry pay the settlement and return to business as usual. He’s a fighter, a former black belt in judo, with a thick, squat build. He’s a Bronx guy through and through. He enjoys mixing it up. “They can’t blow smoke at me,” Wigand says. “I constantly keep them on the truth course. I keep the truth lit, and they don’t like it. But I’m not alone. I’ve got more people to shine the light on them now.”
Chuck Salter (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. To learn more about Jeffrey Wigand, visit his Web site or email him (firstname.lastname@example.org).