One Man's Crusade against Tobacco Firms Former Industry Executive Testifies in Mississippi

Article excerpt

FOR the tobacco industry, Jeffrey Wigand may be the smoking gun.

Mr. Wigand is a former senior executive who ran a tobacco giant's research and development department for four years. Now his attorney says Wigand is willing to tell judges and juries what his former employer knows about the effects of cigarettes.

The prospect of Wigand testifying around the country, in what could be one of the most important whistle-blower cases yet to surface against the tobacco industry, has resulted in a flurry of legal actions. Yesterday, however, Wigand showed up in Pascagoula, Miss., and began talking.

His testimony followed a state judge's ruling in Mississippi on Tuesday that Wigand must tell federal and state officials what he knows about his former employer, Brown & Williamson (B&W) Tobacco Co., a division of B.A.T. Industries Plc.

Yesterday morning, Wigand was questioned by the FBI, who wanted to talk to him as part of a Justice Department investigation into whether the tobacco companies conspired to hinder the development of a cigarette that was less likely to start fires.

On Monday, B&W obtained a restraining order in Louisville, Ky., to prevent Wigand from violating a confidentiality agreement he signed two years ago. Wigand agreed not to divulge any of the company's secrets or "disparage the reputation" of the company or its products. The agreement requires that he give the company a meaningful opportunity to meet with him before testifying. But yesterday, a B&W official said the company would ask a Kentucky judge to declare Wigand in contempt of court.

"Wigand poses an enormous threat to Brown & Williamson as well as the other companies who have slaved for years to keep their knowledge and activities secret," says Clifford Douglas, president of Tobacco Control Law & Policy Consulting in Chicago.

Mississippi officials say Wigand's testimony may be important to the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which aims to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for health care given to poor smokers. It planned to take depositions this week.

Subpoenas from other states

Other plaintiffs battling the tobacco companies are also likely to subpoena Wigand. Currently Florida, Minnesota, West Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts have filed or are planning to file suits seeking from the tobacco companies the medical costs of treating indigent smokers. …