Tobbacco activist Jeffry Wigand says whistleblowing has become his calling

The chief scientist and vice- president of research & development at Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. In the mid 1990s, post his dismissal from the company, he blew the whistle on nicotine data manipulation by tobacco companies.

Danish September 12, 2013 11:17:47 IST
Tobbacco activist Jeffry Wigand says whistleblowing has become his calling

Dr Jeffry S Wigand is known as the man who revealed the big secrets of tobacco industry. Dr Wigand was the chief scientist and vice- president of research & development at Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. In the mid 1990s, post his dismissal from the company, he blew the whistle on nicotine data manipulation by tobacco companies.

In his deposition in the lawsuit between the state of Mississippi and tobacco companies, Dr Wigand said that tobacco companies were fudging the facts about the nicotine content in cigarettes. In an interview given to the show "60 minutes" on CBS, for the first time Wigand went public with his information about the tobacco industry.

He was instrumental in bringing about a $246 billion settlement agreement under which the tobacco companies agreed to pay to the state to fund the medical bills incurred due to tobacco-related diseases. The 1999 movie 'The Insider' starring Russel Crow in lead role was based on Dr Wigand's life. He now runs a non-profit 'Smoke- Free Kind', which educates kids about the ills of smoking. In New Delhi to attend a seminar conducted by the website Newslaundry and activist Chitra Subramanium, Wigand spoke to Firstpost about the difficulties of being a whistleblower and if he has made peace with himself.

Tobbacco activist Jeffry Wigand says whistleblowing has become his calling

Tobacco companies are expanding their markets from developed countries to developing countries where it is a lot easier. Reuters

In an interview given to Public Broadcasting Service, you were asked why you blew the whistle. You said that the industry as a whole has defrauded the American public. Now, almost two decades later, do you think the industry continues to do so?

Yes. (pause). They (cigarette companies) have been convicted of being gangsters and punished by a court of law. That happened after the judge considered 1800 plus pages of opinion. I often say the leopard does not change his buds. They are still developing new nicotine delivery devices like e- cigarettes. They continue to lobby against rules and regulations that will protect public health.

Do you think that lobbying by tobacco companies has increased in recent years?

I believe so. I don't have specific numbers though. But given the stakes and given what is going on with the regulatory industry, they have to spend more time to prevent regulations. They don't want smoke free regulations, they don't want price increase regulations, they don't want clean packaging regulations. And to do all this they require lots of money and lots of lobbying. They are expanding their markets from developed countries to developing countries where it is a lot easier.

What is the best and the worst compliment you got after you confronted the tobacco companies?

Among the best ones, people have told me, "You have given me the incentive to quit." "I am going to quit." On the worst, when I testified in the court, people gave me death threats. That's the opposite pole. But I continue doing that work because that work makes the difference. It changes lives.

What keeps you going other than the fact that the work you do, changes lives, as you said?

I think it has become a calling. I have the capacity to communicate with people. I have the scientific credibility and credentials. On hindsight, I think I had the opportunity to shed light on what I knew. I felt that obligation as the citizen of the universe.

Talking about what you got to know while working with Brown & Williamson and what you did with it, in a 1999 interview given to The New York Times, you said, "I struggle with what I did with what I knew; I really do." Can you elaborate?

What is the obligation one has with knowledge? When you have knowledge you have a responsibility to use that knowledge. With particularly negative knowledge, hard knowledge that I had...of documents having been destroyed, companies targeting children, creating an addiction that lead to illness and doing all that for profit. That's wrong. So, it was a morally right decision.

Do you think that things would have changed without you leaving the company?

No. I tried to have it changed by remaining inside.

Tell us about the sense of achievement after you testified against the firm?

What I did, I did for truth. And the truth had been hidden for decades. It's a matter of unearthing the archaeology of lies and fraud that was necessary for public to see. The industry has been characterised (by the court) as gangsters running organised crime. Shouldn't somebody who see organised crime going on feel the obligation to testify? I did that.

How did you deal with lose of anonymity?

There are times when you want your private space. And yet, there are obligations you have after you become a public figure. That's how it was.

Does it still haunt you - the court trial, threats - that entire phase?

No no....my pillow is very soft. I have no trouble sleeping.

It means you have made peace with yourself?

Absolutely! I am at peace with myself. I educate children. I educate policymakers. I create policies on legislation that protect children, protect health of others, protect dignity.

In comparison to 1995 when you testified against tobacco firms, do you think it has now become easy for whistleblowers?

The federal whistleblowers in the US are covered by the law. If you are a private whistleblower, like I was, there is no protection. You are on your own. I think now the atmosphere may be better for coming forward with information. As more come out, it is easier for others to come out. But what remains crucial is that you have to have your facts. You have to back support everything with truth. You cannot do it just for fun. This is not a fun game.

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