Former tobacco executive warns teens against smoking
Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco-industry executive and lightning rod for controversy, told an audience of 600-plus teens and preteens in West Seattle that cigarette manufacturers are interested in them.
Interested in hooking them on an addictive, expensive and deadly drug: nicotine.
"They need 3,000 kids a day. The average age today (of new smokers) in this country is 12 1/2 and trending downward toward 11. They need to get 3,000 kids addicted before they're 18," Wigand, 57, told sixth- through eighth-graders at Madison Middle School yesterday.
Tobacco is a product which, when used as directed, kills more than 400,000 people every year, said the former research director for Brown & Williamson Tobacco.
Wigand, whose battle with his erstwhile employer is the subject of the movie "The Insider," was hailed by Principal Stephanie Haskins as "a real-life hero." The film was nominated today for seven Oscars.
Wigand's visit to Seattle and Olympia was sponsored by the American Lung Association of Washington and the Washington Alliance on Tobacco Control and Children's Health. He was to join a rally today on the Capitol steps where high-school students and others planned to ask that legislators stand by their commitment to use $323 million from the national tobacco settlement only for tobacco control and other health purposes.
Brown & Williamson Tobacco, which fired Wigand in 1993, brands as fiction both the movie about him and much of what he says from the stump.
Spokesman Mark Smith said the company does not encourage under-age smoking, which he attributed primarily to peer pressure. "There's no worse black eye for this industry than a young person smoking a cigarette," he said.
Smith also noted Wigand was investigated by the FBI for putting a computer-written threat against himself and a bullet in his own mailbox. Although the FBI found several words and phrases matching the note on the hard drive of Wigand's home computer, he was never charged with faking a threat.
Wigand, accusing Brown & Williamson of smearing him, claims that further investigation by the FBI showed no evidence that he manufactured the threat.
Students at Madison strained to hear Wigand as he paced the floor of the large multipurpose room and told how he joined the tobacco industry in hopes of helping it develop safer cigarettes. He said he found it instead to be a business more interested in covering up evidence of tobacco's dangers and hooking preteen smokers.
Students were impressed by his message.
"I was surprised that they would do these terrible things and still deny the truth," said Claire McWilliams, 14.
"I didn't think that the tobacco industry was that gruesome," said Megan Papa, 13. "I knew they were there for the profit and to help the company, but I didn't know they would put their company over the youth of tomorrow."