Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Former Brown & Williamson researcher Jeffrey Wigand revealed on the CBS news program 60 Minutes that his former employer added chemicals such as ammonia to cigarettes to increase nicotine’s addictiveness. The scandal and its fallout created an ethical and legal earthquake that shook the underpinnings of the tobacco industry, led to a new consumer awareness of the dangers of tobacco products, and rattled investigative journalism.

Summary of Event

Jeffrey Wigand, a biochemist and former vice president for research, development, and environmental affairs at Brown & Williamson (B&W) in Louisville, Kentucky, became a big-tobacco whistle-blower after confronting his former employer by claiming on national television that the company was guilty of illegal and unethical activities. Wigand, who as a B&W employee also was deeply involved in the corrupt practices, alleged that B&W attempted to systematically conceal the adverse health risks of smoking and consciously introduced injurious toxins (a practice he referred to as “impact boosting”) into cigarettes to enhance their appeal and addictive qualities. The revelation also evolved into a major journalistic scandal when 60 Minutes, a prime-time CBS news program, initially chose to delay airing its interview with Wigand before finally opting to air a heavily edited version of his confession. [kw]Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption (Feb. 4, 1996) [kw]Tobacco Industry Corruption, Whistle-Blower Reveals (Feb. 4, 1996) 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Tobacco industry corruption Tobacco industry corruption Wigand, Jeffrey Wallace, Mike 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Tobacco industry corruption Tobacco industry corruption Wigand, Jeffrey Wallace, Mike [g]United States;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] [c]Radio and television;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] [c]Corruption;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] [c]Medicine and health care;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] [c]Environmental issues;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] [c]Business;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] [c]Publishing and journalism;Feb. 4, 1996: Whistle-Blower Reveals Tobacco Industry Corruption[02740] Bergman, Lowell

Former Brown & Williamson researcher Jeffrey Wigand, accompanied by attorneys, arrives for a deposition in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in November, 1995.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Wigand was born in Pleasant Valley, New York, on December 17, 1942. After a brief stint in the military, he received a doctorate from State University of New York, Buffalo, and subsequently worked as a marketer and manager at several pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, before going to work for B&W in January, 1989. Although his formal title at B&W was researcher and developer, his job more specifically involved investigative processes including fire safety, ignition propensity, and tobacco additives. He later disclosed that he thought he would have the opportunity to make a difference at B&W by working on a safer cigarette, or cigarettes that would be less harmful. According to Wigand, however, the company blocked most of his proposed studies. He was fired on March 24, 1993.

Upon his termination, Wigand initially honored his confidentiality agreement with B&W, denying any illegal practices on the part of his former employer. In the spring of 1994, however, Wigand was approached by and cooperated with CBS producer Lowell Bergman, who was seeking advice (mostly involving Wigand’s work in developing the self-extinguishing cigarette) about a Philip Morris cigarette-safety program 60 Minutes was preparing to air. At the same time, Wigand, along with former Philip Morris chemist William Farone, became the lead informant in a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation into the tobacco industry’s use of genetically altered plants to increase nicotine levels in cigarettes.

Lowell understood that Wigand’s insider knowledge was important, but Wigand himself remained concerned about the legal and personal consequences of going public. After expressing such doubts, CBS, in exchange for Wigand’s complete forthrightness as their informant, agreed to help him legally if he were sued by B&W for violating his confidentiality agreement with the company. Attorney Richard Scruggs agreed to represent Wigand pro bono. Wigand agreed to the deal, and CBS set up his interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace.

In the August 3, 1995, interview, Wigand explained the practice of impact boosting, a harmful chemical process that ensures nicotine is absorbed more quickly by the lungs, which, in turn, affects the brain and central nervous system. He also discussed B&W’s target market—youths—and the company’s refusal to develop a safer cigarette. He further claimed that additives in tobacco were known carcinogens, and he referred to cigarettes as mere delivery devices for highly addictive nicotine. Wigand also claimed that B&W legal counsel edited the results of some of his studies to exclude references to the hazardous effects of cigarettes.

Following the 60 Minutes interview, which had yet to be broadcast, Wigand began to receive death threats, which he naturally attributed to his conflict with B&W. He confessed to writer Marie Brenner in a 1996 Vanity Fair magazine interview that his children had received death threats and his reputation was under systematic attack through a B&W smear campaign. Someone broke into his Louisville apartment on at least one occasion.

Meanwhile, as the Wigand interview moved forward at CBS, a legal settlement between ABC and the companies Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds developed out of fear that ABC’s airing of its own program about big tobacco would prove damaging to all parties. CBS took note of the case, and although Lowell, Wallace, and 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt understood the significance of the Wigand interview, other CBS executives, fearing that a potential lawsuit would cost billions of dollars, opted to shelve the broadcast. Producers also feared CBS could be charged with tortious interference for persuading Wigand to break his confidentiality agreement with B&W. On November 12, CBS agreed to air a redacted version of the interview and the allegations against B&W, but the network did so without naming Wigand as its source. Almost immediately, The New York Times, media critics, and others condemned the decision as journalistic cowardice. Wallace, too, went on record condemning the executive decision. Only after someone at CBS leaked a transcript of the interview to the New York Daily News and after the threat of a lawsuit passed did the network decide to broadcast a revised version of the interview that included Wigand. The program aired on February 4, 1996.

As expected, B&W sent a message to future whistle-blowers by suing Wigand for breach of contract. By this time, however, the damage had been done. B&W’s lawsuit against Wigand garnered little public or media sympathy. Now, few could trust the word of a big tobacco company, or support its claims. The Wall Street Journal and other publications expressed popular sentiment when they concluded that most of the serious allegations against Wigand were unfounded. Though he escaped a possible prison sentence, economic ruin, and attacks on his personal integrity, Wigand emerged from the incident with his credibility and positive public image largely intact.

Wigand’s story was adapted for film. The Insider (1999), directed by acclaimed filmmaker Michael Mann, was adapted by Mann and screenwriter Eric Roth from Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1996). The celebrated cast includes Russell Crowe as Wigand, Al Pacino as Bergman, and Christopher Plummer as Wallace. Ultimately, The Insider not only popularized the Wigand-B&W scandal but also garnered popular appeal and critical praise. The film received seven Academy Award nominations in 2000, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Crowe, and five Golden Globe nominations.

The film, however, was not without controversy. Mann was accused of using excessive dramatic license. Several persons at CBS (including Wallace) claimed that Bergman attempted to negotiate the film deal while the real-life events were still unfolding. Some also alleged that Bergman was on the phone with Mann during a number of CBS meetings. Wallace was alarmed as well, arguing that Mann’s film portrayed him in an unflattering way.

B&W also claimed Mann had distorted the facts. The company primarily was concerned about scenes in the film in which Wigand receives death threats and is being following by menacing figures. However, according to Brenner’s article (on which the film is based), additional death threats had been made against Wigand, most of which were not addressed in the film. As a public-relations safety measure, the company sent representatives to screenings of the film to answer questions. B&W also purchased a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal to respond to the film’s promotional campaign (particularly the public appearances of Wigand) and to maintain its innocence.

Impact

In the months following Wigand’s 60 Minutes 60 Minutes[sixty minutes] interview, a succession of big tobacco whistle-blowers came forward, including three from industry giant Philip Morris.

Wigand became a standard-bearer for a grassroots crusade against big tobacco, and his name is now synonymous with corporate whistle-blowing, the tobacco wars, and the government’s attempt to regulate the fifty billion dollar tobacco industry.

More generally, the Wigand scandal led to a broad shift in protocol for investigative media. It also led to changes in the public-relations strategies of tobacco companies but also to a more cynical public. The case also represents a critical moral transformation in the battle against cigarette manufacturers. With the public disclosure of what was previously internal knowledge, tobacco companies began to face new ethical impediments, and the industry’s earsplitting denials of the dangers of tobacco went unheard in the wake of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Likewise, whistle-blowing and investigative journalism proved to be exceptional partners for an informed consumer society.

The whistle-blowing scandal also affected Wigand personally: After moving to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, he began working as a lecturer and consultant on various tobacco issues. Perhaps most important, he also became deeply involved in teaching adolescents about the dangers of using tobacco, forming Smoke-Free Kids, Inc., his own nonprofit organization. 60 Minutes[sixty minutes];Tobacco industry corruption Tobacco industry corruption Wigand, Jeffrey Wallace, Mike

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brandt, Allan M. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. New York: Basic Books, 2007. An authoritative and superbly researched history of cigarettes, smokers, and the tobacco industry in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brenner, Marie. “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Vanity Fair, May, 1996. Brenner’s illuminating article broke much of the Wigand story and was the basis for the screenplay to Michael Mann’s film The Insider.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessler, David. A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. Kessler, former head of the FDA, was faced with a simple question upon starting his job with the agency in 1990: “Why doesn’t the FDA regulate the consumer product that is the nation’s number-one killer?” This book looks at the FDA’s role in regulating the giant tobacco industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tate, Cassandra. Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of the “Little White Slaver.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Provides an all-purpose overview of the history of cigarettes and their use. Pays particular attention to the trajectory of various movements against tobacco use and successfully ties the movements into the broader historical and social context of reform history.

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