Where there's smoke...

Possibly the most famous whistleblower of all time, Jeffrey Wigand paid a heavy price for the information he supplied about the tobacco industry. He tells John Byrne about his admiration for Micheál Martin, his fears for the Third World and how smoking literally changed his life. Photograph by Tom Galvin

By January 1996, Jeffrey Wigand's life had disintegrated. "I am sick of it. Sick of hiding in a hotel and living like an animal. I want to go home," he said at the time. "My children have received death threats, my reputation and character have been attacked systematically in an organised smear campaign."

Wigand, the former $300,000-a-year vice president of Research at Brown and Williamson Tobacco in the United States, had just been thrown out of his house after a bullet was posted through his letter box. "You have put us all in danger. Now I want you out of the house," his wife said.

A further anonymous message to him read: "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, asshole."

Professionally ruined, Wigand was reduced to working as a chemistry and Japanese teacher for $30,000 a year. He employed a security guard, and he habitually changed phone numbers to avoid harassment.

"I have lost my family. I don't know what I am going to do," he said then.

Wigand was paying the price for being the highest-ranking figure from the tobacco industry to disclose the lies it had been telling about the dangers of its products. He was originally hired by Brown and Williamson in 1989 to "develop a safer cigarette".

"I was paid well, I got to relocate my family closer to their grandparents. I had lots of personal economic benefits."

But four years later, the project had been abandoned and Wigand had been fired.

"When I got there, I became too successful," he says. "I was finding out things about what they knew [about the dangers of tobacco], and it made me pretty uncomfortable. We're talking very unethical behaviour. And every time I focused on something, I became less and less – how would you say – tolerated.

"In the end, it was all over a chemical compound called Coumarin that was shown to be a lung-specific carcinogen. It had been banned in 1954 by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], but the company continued using it in cigarettes knowing it was toxic and banned. But they still wouldn't take it out because it would affect profits. That was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Although bound by a confidentiality clause not to discuss anything he had discovered while working for Brown and Williamson, Wigand got in touch with the producers of CBS' 60 Minutes programme, and word began to circulate that he was telling them secrets about his years with the tobacco company. Also, when he saw tobacco executives testify to Congress that nicotine was not addictive – including Tommy Sandefur, his ex-boss at Brown & Williamson – he went to the FDA to talk about what he knew.

Alarmed, Brown and Williamson took a lawsuit against him for breach of contract, and hired a PR company to run a smear campaign to reduce his credibility. They described him as "a habitual liar, a bad, bad guy". Rumours began circulating that he beat his wife. He was accused of shoplifting and fraud. And it was after he made a deposition in a case against the major US tobacco companies that the death threats began.

"I was right on the edge," he says. "I was unable to cope."

But after years of persecution, Wigand was vindicated, and is now often listed as one of the world's best-known whistle-blowers. All charges brought against him by Brown and Williamson were eventually dropped. Vanity Fair published a 20,000 word account of his story, entitled 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'. NBC's 60 Minutes broadcast an extensive interview in which Wigand discussed in detail what he had witnessed at B&T. And most famously, a film was made about his fight against the tobacco industry – Michael Mann's The Insider, made in 1999 – in which he was played by Russell Crowe.

So why did he decide to tell all?

"I don't know. My upbringing, my prior training, my religion [he was raised a strict Catholic]. But I just don't know the formula, I really don't.

"But I had my children asking me why I was killing people in my job. Before, I was a Fortune 10 senior executive for most of my career with companies like Johnson & Johnson. I'd never had to deal with that kind of stuff [the cover-ups]. I'd never seen lawyers change and destroy documents because if they were discovered by the public it would uncover a lie."

Is he angry with his former Browne and Williamson work mates for not supporting him?

"That's their choice, not my choice. I have to live with my integrity they have to live with their integrity. You get very comfortable when you are making $100,000 a year. Are you willing to disrupt that? And sometimes it was the money and sometimes it was the fear of reprisal."

Sitting in La Stampa in Dawson St in Dublin, Jeffrey Wigand bears no resemblance to Russell Crowe – or the man described by Vanity Fair as "prickly, isolated and fragile" and "peculiar as hell" in 1996. Round-faced, relaxed and chatty, the 62-year-old is here to publicise Clearing the Air – the Battle over the Smoking Ban, a book about the introduction of the smoking ban in Ireland.

So what does he make of the Irish smoking ban? What did Ireland do right and what did it do wrong?

"Ireland had a very strong champion in Micheál Martin. Despite significant political risk and a lot of nay-sayers, he weathered that storm. He stuck to his guns. He believed in the principal that the government should intervene when harm is being created, staying faithful to John Stuart Mill's principal of liberty. And so he was, with the help of a lot of, we'll say, grassroots folks, able to stave off the industry's manipulation of truth."

While countries such as Ireland have introduced smoking bans, and strict EU regulations govern tobacco advertising in Europe, Wigand believes it is those in the Third World who are most in danger from the tobacco industry.

"The EU is a little bit ahead of the rest of the world," he says. "But go to some of the undeveloped countries and look. We ran Joe Camel out of the United States. But Joe Camel is alive and well in developing world countries, and that's where the children are. This industry survives by getting 12 and 13-year-old kids to smoke, not by getting 25-year-olds to smoke.

"I'm sure the tobacco industry is drooling at the prospect of China and Africa, and all they can see is money signs and children, and that's what their business is. Market to the children, get them hooked early, get them hooked for life."

On a personal level, Wigand has little time for smokers. He won't allow people to smoke around him, and none of his friends smoke. But what would he do if his children started?

"I'd want nothing to do with it."

Would he expel them from the house?

"No, I don't think I'd ever have to cross that bridge."

But they're human, they are surely susceptible to advertising, like anyone else is.

"Not my kids. They've gone through this, they understand it and they would never, ever go near it. I could never see it happening, Elaine and David, they speak on dad's behalf at school, and advocate as I do. So if I'm advocating non-smoking and I'm sitting here with a cigarette in my hand, is that not hypocrisy?"

But ironically, when he started at Brown and Williamson, he also began smoking. "I started when I was 44, for about 16 months. Everybody did it, I'd never done it. It was down to peer pressure. And I was certainly aware of the risks."

Did he find it hard to stop?

"In some ways yeah, but it was just mind over matter. I mean I'm probably one of the few that can, the 10 or 12 per cent who can do that kind of thing."

So he never feels like sneaking a quick drag out the back of a building when nobody is looking?

"Sometimes, when I smell it. I grew up in a second generation German family, where my mom used to bake bread every Saturday morning, and I'd smell the bread and I think of home. And it's just like that process, because the nicotine attaches itself to the brain. Generally some people initially associate the chemical feeling you get from smoking with pleasure, never realising what happens to your body."

Wigand feels that the dangers posed by tobacco can be compared to the Second World War Holocaust. "The Holocaust was when ten million people died that did not have to die. If tobacco continues to be legitimised as a social norm, it will cause ten million people to die. Is that not a holocaust?"

Is the use of that kind of language not a bit over the top?

"A holocaust is about the destruction of human life. That's what a holocaust is. When you compare it to a holocaust, it's comparing numbers. The tobacco industry targets minorities, targets the poor."

Finally, has he ever been in Ireland before? "Yes, about 20 years ago."

How did you cope with the smokey bars?

"I didn't cope with them well. Your eyes burn, you start coughing and hacking."

So he stayed out of them?

"I'm not a big drinker. Usually when I go out to eat, I want to have a good meal that I can enjoy. An elegant meal would not be as enjoyable or tasty if contaminated with smoke. 25 per cent of Irish people smoke, but the other 75 per cent don't want to go out and get poisoned. So I think [the ban is] great for business. The only people who hurt are those who sell the cancer sticks, the lethal sticks. So I think the rest of the world is gaining from the example of Ireland and Irish people."p

?More Clearing the Air: The Battle over the Smoking Ban, by Noel Gilmore, Liberties Press, €9.95. Author royalties to Irish Cancer Society