TLC Searches For a Smoking Gun
By the time Walter Cronkite's narrative and the images of smoke, blackened lung tissue and tumorous lab rats come around to Jeffrey S. Wigand, the TLC series "Tobacco Wars" is nearly over.
The three-hour documentary, airing on the cable network from 9 to 11 p.m. Thursday and 9 to 10 Friday, chronicles the history of the cigarette. There are vintage film clips of the early, heady days of the industry -- World War I soldiers fortifying themselves with healthy drags before going over the top, the habit becoming more glamorized as the century roles on.
But soon the series is grappling with its core contention: that the tobacco companies throughout much of the industrial lifetime of the cigarette have tried to deny, suppress or even capitalize on the swelling body of scientific and medical evidence that smoking is harmful to health.
Wigand's appearance is brief -- "They shot for two hours and used two minutes," he remarked -- but his testimony and that of other former industry insiders and researchers pile up like cordwood in this joint production of the BBC and TLC (The Learning Channel).
In 1995, Wigand, the former vice president for research and development for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, became a high-profile soldier in the tobacco wars, appearing on "60 Minutes" to discuss what he saw as the industry's disregard for health and safety matters. He was also deposed in Mississippi legal action against the tobacco companies.
This documentary airs in the wake of the recent filing of a massive federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry. And while the three hours includes a number of tobacco executives speaking in their own defense, the piece could serve as Exhibit A against the industry.
That suit maintains, in a nutshell, that the industry waged a 45-year campaign of deception concerning the health hazards of cigarettes, resulting in the federal government's spending about $20 billion a year in treating sick smokers. And sickness and death from smoking are a large part of the documentary's theme.
Some of this show's images are painful. A throat cancer victim puffs a cigarette through an airway hole in the neck.
Some of the images remind us that television itself has been a prime battle ground for the tobacco wars. Rugged, fit, beautiful celebrities hawk their brands: Steve McQueen, Desi and Lucy, and Frank Gifford and Paul Hornung in their football days. In the backlash, William Talman, "Perry Mason's" Hamilton Burger, dying of lung cancer, admits to "smoking and losing for years."
Cigarette advertising was banned on American television, and in Britain it was restricted: a package of cigarettes could not be shown in any glamorous, appealing context. What followed, we're told, was some of the most creative advertising ever run in Great Britain, with cigarette packs portrayed in dazzlingly clever fashions, enhancing their appeal to young people who like clever things.
Jeffrey Wigand's moments in this documentary do not cover the personal side of his story, the saga of a man with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a 25-year career in health care who took a top position with a tobacco company. That was in 1988, long after the 1964 surgeon general's report officially linked smoking to lung cancer.
What was he thinking?
As he recalled those days in a telephone interview, he said he was thinking about his family, his lifestyle and about improving the world.
There he was, in his mid-forties, living in New Jersey with his then-wife and two small daughters, 2 months and 2 years old. He was enjoying a career that had included management positions at companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
But he was looking to get out of a heavily urban environment. He responded to an ad for a head of research and development. A headhunter called, and after a cycle of interviews he appeared headed for a dream job, one that would take him to Kentucky, his wife's home state, as the top R&D man at the number-three company in its field. There would be perks -- such as a company car -- and good money: $300,000 a year.
And he would get to do good. "I went there," he said, "to develop a safer cigarette."
That idea plays into one of the themes echoing through the last two hours of the TLC documentary: If a company introduced a safer cigarette, it would imply that it knew the ones the company had been marketing all along were unsafe.
It didn't take Wigand long to realize that he and the people who hired him were no longer on the same page. He recalled lawyers "taking and vetting documents, reducing 18 to 20 pages of discussion, turning them into vanilla . . . simply to have a safe document in case of [legal] discovery."
Soon, he said, lawyers were in the middle of everything. "I'd say that after a year -- October 1988, January 1990 -- I realized I had made a mistake."
But while he may have begun wondering where he would work next, he didn't stomp out of Brown & Williamson in indignation.
"I was a captive of my environment somewhat," said Wigand. "I had two kids, a mortgage, medical issues with my oldest daughter. I wasn't ready to rock the cradle. . . .
"It's hard, making that kind of money, having a family. I just wanted to leave quietly. . . . It wasn't possible. I kept taking the money, yeah."
The end came, he said, when he objected to the inclusion of coumarin, which he described as a toxic ingredient, in the company's pipe tobacco. He was fired in 1993.
He taught high school for three years in Louisville and enjoyed it. "But in the long run, Louisville, the home of tobacco, was uncomfortable," he said.
The documentary details some of that discomfort, noting Wigand had a personal security team and once found a threatening note in his mail box.
His experience is the subject of "The Insider," a theatrical movie scheduled for November release.
Wigand now lives in Charleston, S.C., where he works through a nonprofit organization he formed, Smoke-Free Kids Inc. "I make less money from the foundation than I did when I was teaching," he said.
Wigand said he used to get questions from his daughters, now 11 and 13, and a third daughter by an earlier marriage, age 26, asking him why he did what he did for a living. Now, he said, "my daughters are proud of their father.
"I have no regrets. And I'd do it again."