FACE TO FACE : Jeffrey Wigand: ‘Don’t call me a whistle-blower’

Jeffery Wigand looked tired. He had just handful of hours left before he could sink into the seat of the aircraft that would deliver the native-born New Yorker home to Mt Pleasant, Michigan, where he now lives. He had completed an exhausting week of lectures, parliamentary select committee hearings, media interviews and into-the-night conversations on the evils of the global tobacco industry and its products.
Parliament’s Maori Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the tobacco industry and the consequences of its use on Maori had invited Dr Wigand as an internationally recognised scientific expert on tobacco use. Anti-smoking lobby ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) sponsored his trip.
The softly spoken Wigand is also the world’s loudest corporate whistle-blower, term he would prefer was struck from the organisational lexicon. “I use the term ‘person of conscience’,” he says. “Whistle-blower has pejorative connotations, such as tattle-tale, rat or snitch. These don’t take into consideration the hierarchy of values when they see harm or wrong being committed.
He thinks whistle-blowing, or taking moral stance on immoral commercial actions, should be encouraged rather than ridiculed. “Persons of conscience are very important,” he says, because they save lives and expose corporate fraud, frequently at their own expense and exposure to personal harm.
Wigand was, between 1988 and 1993, vice-president for research and development at Brown and Williamson, Louisville, Kentucky-based subsidiary of the giant British and American Tobacco company (BAT). But he turned his back on the company and his generous salary and instead exposed the tobacco industry’s fraudulent health claims of safe smoking. His whistle-blowing experiences and sometimes life-threatening consequences were immortalised by actor Russell Crowe in the movie The Insider.
Wigand joined Brown and Williamson to head what he believed was genuine scientific-based research to make safer cigarette. It was, he says reflectively, “the worst career decision I ever made”. For the world at large it was more fortunate blunder. He created, and continues to work for, greater global understanding of what he effectively calls the tobacco industry’s treachery.
Immoral leadership and corporate governance is, as also witnessed now in the investment banking and finance industries, at the heart of the tobacco industry’s deception story. What Wigand found were tobacco industry directors and senior executives “engaged deliberately and consciously in deceiving, obfuscating and generating scientific controversy about product they knew, when used, killed not only the user but also the innocent bystander”.
“They did that for one reason, and one reason only,” he adds. “For money. For profit. Tobacco is very profitable product. It has for decades, if not centuries, generated enormous wealth for [the owners of] the tobacco companies.”
“That wealth is used to hire lawyers, public relations firms, ad agencies, marketing companies, behavioural psychologists and people willing to take money to do the work of the tobacco industry to continue the deception.”
A recent United States court decision, in finding for the US Department of Justice, called tobacco companies “racketeers” for their behaviour over the past 50 years. “That’s the same moniker you would put on gangster of an organised crime entity,” says Wigand.
Wigand is now, among many other things, lecturer on ethical governance. And while he concedes the tobacco industry story is perhaps the world’s worst example of “shameful” governance, there are, he says, “many examples of the lack of moral and ethical fibre at the governance and leadership level of organisations – from the clergy to Enron”.
Corruption at the top is, he thinks, habit that was explained by the philosopher Aristotle. “It is about getting early rewards and learning the habits of getting materialistic gains quickly by cutting corners, rather than by doing things for moralistic reasons.
“The tobacco companies are probably the most egregious in their behaviour. They have cost individuals and governments billions of dollars. Its death toll exceeds that of all those killed in the combined major wars. They [tobacco companies] are in the forefront when it comes to lack of moral leadership in their corporate structure and governance.”
Wigand says cigarette company directors, senior managers and contractors, such as their lawyers and marketers, work together on systematic conspiracy to deceive all stakeholders other than shareholders and themselves. “I attended meeting of all the heads of research of BAT in which the minutes enunciated clearly the understanding that nicotine was addictive, tar was the product’s baggage, and to move forward, the company would have to change the design of the product to get, what I thought I was hired for, safer product.”
That 12-and-a-half page set of minutes caused director and senior management outrage and, according to Wigand, was subsequently sanitised.
“We had created document which might have to be produced in any subsequent litigation [against the company]. It showed very clearly that BAT had two sets of standards – one for what could be known internally and another for material which they were prepared to use externally and even under oath. This was all known at board level,” he adds.
“An attorney who was not even present at the meeting was ordered to sanitise the minutes so that they became vanilla and could not be traced back to the original document. That episode reached the highest levels of the board of BAT Industries, including the UK chairman of the day, Sir Patrick Sheehy.”
BAT’s solicitor general was subsequently dispatched to New York where Brown and Williamson’s scientists and senior management were told that any time they had meeting, wrote report or decided to do or file something, lawyer would be involved. All documents, they were told, would be sighted by lawyer who would edit, vet or send them back beyond any level where (legal) discovery could kick in.
“This might seem extreme but it is not unusual,” says Wigand. “The company talked about cigarettes and marketing strategies that would ‘hook ‘em young, hook ‘em for life’. Their general counsel in the 1950s and ’60s talked about the company being in the covert pharmaceutical business.
“They talked about nicotine being our product and tar our negative baggage. This is long history of continued propagation of misinformation, deliberately protecting the interests of the company by keeping the truth from the public.”
There is, according to Wigand, slowly gathering international acceptance that incompetent commercial governance is at the heart of many of the world’s environmental, social and political problems and that action must be taken to shake up the governance model. The problem the world has with the tobacco industry, where it is obvious there is no reason other than money to be associated with such harmful enterprise, is that it has been legal to manufacture and sell for long time.
Graeme Amey, general manager for BAT New Zealand, told the Maori Affairs Select Committee that: “Tobacco is legal product for adults over 18 years,” and that his company “operates within the legal framework as set by the New Zealand government.” In other words, if it’s legal to sell tobacco and make money from doing so, why worry about the science, or even the company’s now available internal findings that confirm nicotine is an addictive substance and smoking kills – about 5000 New Zealanders every year.
The Select Committee is looking for evidence to support its case for smoke-free New Zealand by 2020. According to Wigand, most governments feel that overnight prohibition is impractical. “The practical approach, therefore, is to de-normalise and de-socialise smoking, because the industry’s leaders and their

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