By TIM BULLARD
After being fired by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company and censored by “60 Minutes” Jeffrey Wigand, Ph.D., subject of last year’s feature film “The Insider,” credits his religious upbringing for helping him make it through the roughest of times.
Wigand, 57, of Folly Beach, visited Myrtle Beach Middle School May 25 to preach about the dangers of tobacco and smoking to a group of 260 pupils.
“I was brought up Catholic and for many years a very devout Catholic,” Wigand said in an interview before addressing the students. “I don’t think I would have made it alone. If anybody thinks that this was a voyage that Jeff Wigand did by himself, it’s impossible.”
Wigand said he joined the tobacco industry in 1989 to make a safer cigarette.
“My children who went to school were always asking me why I continued to work for a company that killed people,” he said. “Suddenly things I observed in the company were clearly way outside of ethics, way outside of what I considered legally responsible and clearly put public health and safety at an increased risk.”
Wigand went public with his inside knowledge of the tobacco industry after which he received telephone threats.
“They traced the two calls that came in,” he said. “One came from a hospital general number, and the other one came from a phone adjacent to where the Brown & Williamson place of business was. We were never able locate who did what, but from a practical matter, it changed the way we did things. I wasn’t the only one threatened with physical threats.”
The lawyers who represented him were threatened with bombs, Wigand added. “Ron Motley of Charleston still has a bodyguard today because of continued threats on his life for the role he has played in bringing the tobacco industry into the court of justice.”
For a while during the ordeal, Wigand traveled under an assumed name. His Food and Drug Administration code name was “Research.”
Wigand’s testimony helped bring about a $206 billion settlement in November 1998 between the government and several tobacco firms. Those funds include $3 billion over a 25-year period for South Carolina.
Wigand gives credit to the lawyers who represented him such as Ron Motley and Dick Scruggs for helping him get through the ordeal.
“But most of all it was my dad, my own daughters and then the 153 kids a day that I was teaching at Louisville duPont Manual High School who just stayed with me 100 percent unwaveringly every day,” he said. “And the principal there who let me teach and recognized the teaching I was doing. It all comes together.”
Wigand is planning to tape a federally funded public service announcement with Rosie O’Donnell and actor Jeremy Irons in July for kids about smoking.
He was also the keynote speaker at S.C. Public Health Association luncheon at Kingston Plantation where he received a standing ovation from the likes of Doug Bryant, executive director of the S.C. Department of Public Health, and others. On the Grand Strand, the Bronx native explained the dangers of smoking to the students.
“It is a meticulously engineered designed product to deliver nicotine, addict the user and maintain the addiction,” he told the youngsters. “It is done through cigarette design, chemical design, and it’s coupled with cowboys and camels.”
About 600 additional chemicals are added to cigarettes and tobacco, including licorice, cocoa, honey, sugar, menthol, lemon juice, and orange juice. The additives make tobacco sweeter which Wigand said makes them more palatable and marketable.
“You go into the company’s own documents and you read about what they think about their market and what they want to do with their market,” he said. “They talk about making things sweet because they know who the target market is. I want to tell you that there are lots of those chemicals added to tobacco making it easier to smoke, making it easier to chew and make it easier to spit.
“They also add ammonia,” he explained. “They (tobacco companies) make sure the nicotine in there gets delivered to the body faster, better and in a form that goes in the lungs to the brain in six seconds. The more and more nicotine that gets to the brain, the more and more spots that are created on the brain, so the chemical continues to bind you and keeps the addiction going.
“When you burn a cigarette or tobacco when you use it, you generate between 4,000 to 8,000 chemical compounds,” he continued. “Most of those chemical compounds come from tobacco use and burning it. You cannot legally take them to a garbage dump or sanitary landfill and bury these chemicals.
When he asked how many of the girls in the audience had on nailpolish many hands shot up.
“Guess what’s in tobacco smoke?” he asked. “Nailpolish remover. It’s called acetone. Everybody know what formaldehyde is? What if I said embalming fluid, do you know what that is? Formaldehyde is a chemical substance that we use to preserve bodies. If I told you that cigarette smoke contained formaldehyde, embalming fluid, would you believe me? Anybody know what hydrogen cyanide is? What’s it used for? It’s used in a gas chamber as a form of lethal capital punishment. It’s in cigarette smoke.”
Wigand’s speech to the S.C. Public Health Association was similar to his presentation to the pupils.
“The issue I bring to you is one of children and one of health,” he said. “Number one, South Carolina has a major problem in terms of tobacco use. This state has $3.2 billion to spend over the next 25 years. Most of it is the inheritance of the children of this state.”
Wigand said the vision of those that reached the negotiated settlements was that the funds were to be used for health care and smoking prevention programs for youths. “You get this money back and we can get better futures for our children and our children’s children not to build roads, not to give tobacco farms another tip in the pocket, not to build educational facilities even though they need it but an opportunity to change the futures of thousands and thousands of children.”
Tobacco is more addictive than cocaine and heroin, Wigand reminded the crowd.
Wigand also serves on a Charleston City Council committee and has tried to ban smoking in restaurants.
“He’s excellent,” said Charleston Mayor Joesph P. Riley. “He’s a very good, very credible, brilliant, courageous man. I’m a big admirer of his. He knows he’s got the facts, and he’s got the guts.”
U.S. Senator Ernest Hollings added that the settlements the states received in the class action suits will save “millions and millions of lives.”