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Smoke gets in your ire: Jeff Wigand's death match with tobacco

Sunday, May 04, 2003

MEADVILLE, Pa. - The clerk booked Jeff Wigand into a nonsmoking room, of course. When you're in a death match with the tobacco trade, you don't snooze in their lap. Smoke disrupted his life and he returned the favor 248 billion times over.

Once he earned $300,000 as head of research for Brown & Williamson. After discovering he could not produce a safe cigarette, Wigand blew the industry's polite cover, revealing in detail what the tobacco industry knew about its product, had long known about it and planned to keep on doing what it knew was killing people.

Within months of agreeing to pay out a mind-bending $248 billion in damages to the 50 states for the social cost of cigarettes, Big Tobacco bumped up the price. The inelastic demand of customers will cover the tab in a few years. States are now hooked on the money from tobacco taxes and the big settlement payouts. Disney turned a buck on the movie about Wigand. Russell Crowe was nominated for an Academy Award. Jeffrey Wigand, Ph.D., is sitting in his undershirt at the Comfort Inn.

"I made out well, too," Wigand said. "I won back my integrity."

Oh, please.

No, Wigand said, he had daughters who asked him why he was killing people. Now he has an answer: He's stopped.

"Raleigh. Kool. Viceroy. Lucky Strike. Pall Mall. Belair." Wigand ticked off the cigarettes he helped make. As head of research at B&W, he reverse-engineered the rival Marlboro, to find out just what blend is tucked into it. B&W now sells Richland (note the same number of letters) with a sort of mock Marlboro chevron on the packet.

Smoking is addictive. It is alluring. It is both American in origin and ingrained in our identity. It is, as Wigand puts it, "ritualistic-addictive behavior. You take out a cigarette, you tap it down, you roll it in your mouth." The smell of tobacco for the children of lifelong smokers is still as evocative as the smell of baking bread to the grandson of German immigrants. It's part of the culture and that is what Wigand is fighting, with a convert's zeal.

"What we're trying to do is take fully two centuries of normalization of tobacco into the structure of this country and change it to a product that, when used as intended, kills."

This was said by the man who, working from the B&W Tower in Louisville, Ky., helped develop Y1, a tobacco so saturated with nicotine that the workers at the warehouses in Brazil -- the place to which the seeds were smuggled so the cultivation could continue beyond the eyes of regulators -- get buzzed just walking in. This from the man who has gone public with the information that ammonia is an important additive for cigarettes to extract the nicotine and make it absorbable by the lungs.

Normalization of tobacco, as Wigand sees it, is what has made it inevitable that the majority of new smokers every year are under the age of 18.

"You're not an adult when you choose to smoke," he said. One of the dirty secrets of the traffic, he insists, is that the new market for smokers is drawn from the ranks of children. The three most advertised brands, he said, are the three most recognized by kids when he visits schools.

"Joe Camel certainly wasn't developed to market to 25-year-old adults," he said.

Trading sides on tobacco has made Wigand the subject of an unmediated hatred by his old bosses.

They assembled a 500-page dossier on Wigand as a sort of psychopathic liar. Among the allegations were wife-beater, serial liar, resume-padder. B&W hired the same investigators Bill Clinton used during his Lewinsky troubles. Seized with suspicions they never allowed themselves about the link between their product and all those missing lungs, B&W even tried to blame Wigand for a flood at the office of an ex-employer.

Today, folks in the B&W Tower admit the campaign against Wigand was a self-dooming cause.

"There is regret that it turned out the way it did," said Mark Smith, a Brown & Williamson spokesman. "It is difficult -- I always try to employ common sense. But it's a normal action to respond. In doing so you try to bring as many facts to the table as you possibly can."

Smith speaks from the standpoint of an ex-smoker.

"I made some lifestyle choices and smoking didn't fit into them," he said. He started at 16. Marlboros. That's the most advertised brand.

Wigand came to Meadville to speak to students at the local college and the local Drug and Alcohol commission. At $30,000 a year from his foundation, he gets by comfortably, but only because he pulled in that six-figure salary in his past life.

The money that is most on his mind now is the money flowing into the states from the 1998 tobacco settlement as well as the dollars generated by taxing a product the settlement has shown is at once deadly and highly profitable to the states that denounce it.

Pennsylvania receives, on average, $342 million from its share of the Master Settlement on the tobacco case. The state gets another $333 million from its tax on tobacco.

Of that money, roughly $43 million is spent on tobacco control -- anti-smoking and education programs, even though the Centers for Disease Control have suggested the figure should run from $65.5 million to $184 million.

"Look at this," Wigand said, pulling up CDC figures that say Pennsylvania loses a total of $8 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity connected to smoking.

"Everyone thinks the settlement is all finished and done, but the settlement dollars are all up for grabs," he said. "It's like I'm addicted to $600 million which costs me $8 billion."

It was time for Wigand to dress for his evening speech. He pulled on matching denim shirt and slacks and headed out. He looked, for all the world, like a farmer at an auction. A cigarette would have completed the ensemble nicely.

Problem was, Wigand knows the cost of a pack of cigarettes, and, just like the chemical ingredients, it's not stamped on the pack.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965).

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