Professionalism/Jeffrey Wigand and Brown & Williamson
Jeffrey Wigand was a high ranking scientist working with Brown & Williamson, one of the largest tobacco companies in America in the 1990's. Hoping to improve the safety of smoking, Wigand instead discovered that unethical practices and purposefully deceptive statements were commonplace. Once he decided to go to the media and get involved as an expert witness in tobacco trials, he experienced immense pressure and intimidation from the tobacco industry to stop. This chapter examines the ethical dilemma Wigand faced in deciding to stand up for what he knew was right, despite threats to his reputation and safety, but will not investigate the actual court cases. Additionally, Brown & Williamson does not have much on public record in response to Wigand's story, so we will be limited in how much we can present their defense.
Brown & Williamson
Brown & Williamson was a tobacco firm founded in 1893 by George Brown and Robert Williamson. By the early 1990's, it had become the third-largest tobacco company in the United States. Despite its success, Brown & Williamson does not exist independently today; in 2004, it merged with the second-largest tobacco firm at the time, R.J. Reynolds. The resulting company adopted the name Reynolds American, Inc. and is the third-largest tobacco company in the United States today, producing chewing tobacco, pipe tobacco, and many popular brands of cigarette including Camel and Pall Mall.
Jeffrey Wigand was born in New York City in 1942 and grew up in Pleasant Valley, New York. He received a PhD in endocrinology and biochemistry from he University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a Master's in secondary education from the University of Lousiville. Currently a high school Japanese and science teacher, Wigand has held senior management positions in many large health care companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. In 1989, Wigand became the Vice President for research and development at Brown & Williamson.
Dangers of Tobacco
Today, the dangers of cigarettes and other tobacco products are well known. Cigarettes contain over sixty known carcinogens and lead to many deadly diseases including lung cancer, pulmonary disease, bronchitis, and emphysema. The World Health Organization estimates that there were 5.4 million tobacco-related deaths in 2004 and the American Cancer Society estimates that 30% of cancer deaths in the United States are due to tobacco. This is not specific to smokers, either; studies have shown that secondhand smoke is deadly as well. However, a more pertinent question is how much was known about the dangers of tobacco use in 1993, when Wigand was at Brown & Williamson. Wigand, and the medical community as a whole at the time, knew that nicotine is addictive; that cigarettes can cause cancer, emphysema, and other deadly diseases; and that tobacco contains various cancer-causing substances like acrolein and coumarin. Not only was this common medical knowledge supported by research, this was knowledge possessed researched by the management of Brown & Williamson. Wigand alleges that even the president, Thomas Sandefur, was aware and compliant in the practice of increasing certain ingredients in cigarettes solely because of their addictive qualities. However in 1994 Congressional testimony, Sandefur and six other tobacco executives denied these conclusions adamantly with Sandefur regarding it all as "a crusade for the sake of a political agenda".
Wigand's Time at B&W
It may seem ethically ambiguous for a health care expert to take a $300,000 job at a tobacco firm. However, Wigand took the position of Vice President for Research and Development because he thought he was going to be able to help people. Knowing that smoking will never stop, he felt the only way to help smokers is to reduce the dangers associated with it. When talking with Mike Wallace in his 60 minutes interview, Wigand said, “People will continue to smoke no matter what, no matter what kind of regulations. If you can provide for those who are smoking, who need to smoke, something that produces less risk for them. I thought I was going to be making a difference". Wigand felt he could achieve this, because when he took the job, Brown & Williamson claimed they wanted to make cigarettes safer.
As Wigand started working, he realized that the company was not committed to making a safer cigarette but was more concerned with its image and preventing liability. According to his interview with Wallace, Wigand attended a meeting where he and other British American Tobacco company scientists discussed ways to reduce the harmful effects of cigarettes. However, a company lawyer edited the minutes to remove any discussion of safer cigarettes. Wigand claims that by removing this discussion, Brown & Williamson was trying eliminate any records of acknowledgement that cigarettes are not safe in order to limit liability. Wigand made a complaint to Sandefur, who told him to stop the research of a safer cigarette.
After Wigand was removed from pursuing a safer cigarette, he turned his attention to researching the effects of cigarette additives. One particular substance, coumarin, was a known carcinogen, but Brown & Williamson was using it in pipe tobacco to provide flavoring. Wigand recommended that it be removed, but his request was denied because removing it would affect sales. After this disagreement, Wigand was fired from Brown & Williamson for alleged poor communication skills and performance. As part of Wigand’s severance package, he was required to sign a confidentiality agreement about Brown & Williamson’s practices.
After Wigand was fired from Brown and Williamson, he began working for ABC giving technical advice in their defense against being sued by Phillip Morris. Wigand was contacted by Lowell Bergman, the producer of CBS's 60 Minutes program. Bergman wanted to interview Wigand about his experience at Brown & Williamson, but Wigand was recluctant because of his confidentiality agreement and severance package. Wigand eventually agreed to it, but was assured that the interview would not air without his permission. CBS held the interview until 1996 when it was aired and a Wall Street Journal article was published explaining the Brown & Williamson's actions.
Loss of Job
After a few weeks of Wigand's severance package not being what had been agreed upon, Wigand mentioned the discrepancy to a friend still at the company. Shortly thereafter, Brown & Williamson sued Wigand for breaching confidentiality in talking about his severance package. This left him with no income or health care.
Loss of Credibility
Even more damaging than losing his income, however, was the psychological torment he underwent. Brown & Williamson hired a public relations man named John Scanlon to discredit Wigand. Scanlon was at the forefront of a practice some corporations called crisis management, but Scanlon termed it "guerilla P.R." Wigand had kept a file of correspondence with businesses he dealt with whose products were flawed. Scanlon used this information to accuse Wigand of being a dishonest fraud artist. Scanlon also uncovered information of alleged spousal abuse and shoplifting, even though these occurrences were easily explained, charges were never filed, and they would never be admissible in court. However, the court of public opinion could be swayed into judging Wigand as an untrustworthy person. His name and reputation seemed to be irreparably dragged through the mud.
Loss of Safety and Family
More than anything, Jeffrey Wigand now lived in a state of constant fear. The first time the team at 60 Minutes met him, they described Wigand as a man who had been violated. He would receive constant death threats, such as a phone call that coldly told him to "leave or else you'll find your kids hurt!" and a note that said: "We want you to know that we have not forgotten you or your little brats. If you think we are going to let you ruin our lives, you are in for a big surprise! You cannot keep the bodyguards forever, a**hole." In addition to being terrified for his family, Wigand lost all privacy. He would constantly find copies of his death threats read on the 11 o'clock news without any idea of how they got them. The whole ordeal put so much strain on his family that his wife asked him to leave the house because of all the danger he represented for her and their kids. She eventually filed for divorce.
Bringing Down Big Tobacco
Despite all the hardships Wigand endured, he says he would do it all again. Soon after his testimony came out, the Ligget Tobacco company broke ranks with the other US Tobacco giants and settled lawsuits some attorney generals had filed and also was the first tobacco company to start accepting FDA regulations. This started a chain reaction in the tobacco industries to start doing the same, with companies' stocks plummeting. Of the 7 executives that testified before Congress in 1994 that nicotine wasn't addictive, all 7 faced charges of perjury and quit the industry. This started to take down tobacco industries from their seemingly impervious position, and now they were vulnerable.
Jeffrey Wigand has since reconciled his personal life and his reputation. He is back in his children's lives after years of separation. Wigand credits the 1999 movie The Insider, which portrays the story from Wigand's point of view, with giving him more credibility and a larger platform to deliver his message. Today, Wigand speaks at schools and hospitals all over the country. His talks raise money for his nonprofit organization, Smoke-Free Kids, which works to prevent youth smoking. After successfully taking on the tobacco industry, he turned to the media. In 2000, he cited a study where 3-year-old children more often recognized Joe Camel (Camel Cigarettes' former mascot) than Ronald McDonald or Mickey Mouse. With cartoon marketing of cigarettes now banned, he is trying to eliminate smoking from films. He says people often thank him for convincing them to stop smoking, and potential whistle-blowers thank him for his story and courage.
One can look at Wigand's story and see the torment he suffered and think that there is no way one would go through it. What Wigand shows us is an example of somebody standing behind their principles against overwhelming odds. A survey by Peter Rost found that of the 233 corporate whistle blowers he asked, 90% were fired or demoted, 27% faced lawsuits, 26% sought psychiatric or physical care, 25% suffered alcohol abuse, 17% lost their homes, 15% were divorced, 10% attempted suicide, and 8% were bankrupted. Most telling, however, was that 84% said they would do it again. Wigand is an example of someone who went through much of the backlash of whistle blowing, but was successful. Six years after the entire ordeal, he summed that sentiment up nicely in saying:
- "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."
Even more than 15 years later, Wigand says the threats and intimidation have never stopped. He objects to the term whistle blower being used in his case. About the term, Wigand said:
- "The word whistle-blower suggests that you're a tattletale or that you're somehow disloyal. But I wasn't disloyal in the least bit. People were dying. I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility."
Wigand standing behind statements like these show exactly what gave him the courage to stand up and do what he knew was right, despite the attempts to ruin his professional and personal life. This is the lesson Jeffrey Wigand would want future professionals to heed in their career.
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