Tobacco whistleblower testifies in $280bn lawsuit

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The Independent Online

"I told the truth," Russell Crowe's tobacco industry whistleblower tells Al Pacino's investigative journalist in the Oscar-nominated film The Insider.

"I told the truth," Russell Crowe's tobacco industry whistleblower tells Al Pacino's investigative journalist in the Oscar-nominated film The Insider.

It tells the story of the real-life whistleblower Dr Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist who risked his life to expose the deadly secrets that tobacco companies tried to hide.

Dr Wigand will swear to tell the truth again today, when he takes the stand in Washington to testify against the tobacco industry in its biggest legal challenge yet.

Six companies are in the dock fighting a $280bn claim from the US government, which alleges that the industry deceived the public on the health risks of smoking for more than 50 years.

When Dr Wigand, a former head of research and development at Brown & Williamson, told the US media in 1996 that cigarettes were the "delivery device for nicotine", the tobacco industry was hit by the biggest public health lawsuit to date.

He himself faced lawsuits and death threats. However he was persuaded by Lowell Bergman - the journalist played by Al Pacino - to reveal in a television interview that tobacco companies knew nicotine was addictive, that carcinogenic material was knowingly added to cigarettes, and that company executives suppressed and altered research exploring the dangers of cigarettes.

In a court deposition, Dr Wigand told of how attempts to develop a "safer" cigarette by the company were axed, and minutes of meetings were doctored to protect the company.

"[The tobacco company executives] eliminated all reference to anything that could be discovered during any kind of liability action in reference to a safer cigarette," he said. "Statements were made that anything that alludes to a safer cigarette clearly indicates that other cigarettes are unsafe, and it would acknowledge that nicotine is addictive."

Dr Wigand's testimony eventually helped to bring about a $206bn settlement in 1998 between the tobacco industry and 46 US states for the costs of treating sick smokers.

Eight years on and four months into the Department of Justice's trial, Dr Wigand is being called on again to recall his time at Brown & Williamson, a former subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), between 1989 and 1993.

It is the largest suit launched by the federal government, which is trying to prove that scientific research on nicotine was withheld, destroyed and ignored by a number of companies in a conspiracy dating back to 1954 designed to keep "profits above the public health".

The companies, Brown & Williamson, now part of RJ Reynolds, which is also named in the suit, Philip Morris, Lorillard, Liggett, and another subsidiary of BAT, have been accused of "fraud and deceit" on charges that were originally designed to fight the Mafia.

All companies strongly deny they wilfully misled the public over the health dangers of smoking.

The DoJ claims that a group of chief executives met at the Plaza Hotel in New York in January 1954 to agree a "long-term public relations campaign based on fraud and deception". It is claiming $280bn from the past and future profits of these companies on racketeering charges, making it the largest case of its kind in history.

Under these laws, designed to restrict companies that benefit from organised crime, the government can make a claim on the past profits made by the companies involved as a means of dissuading them from behaving wrongly in the future.

Earlier this month, the outgoing executive chairman of the former RJ Reynolds business refused to concede that cigarette smoking causes disease when he appeared as a witness in the trial. Andrew Schindler, a long-standing executive at Reynolds, defended the company's view that cigarettes "may contribute" to disease in "some individuals".

Dr Wigand is expected to take the stand for two days. Some 30 witnesses have already given evidence in the trial. It is expected to last for another two to three months.