What Do You Stand For?
An excerpt from a response by Jeff Wigand
My moral compass has an intolerance for deceit. It’s a compass that makes me want to make sure that the truth is told, particularly when it affects the health and safety of millions of people…
In September of 1989, I was part of a Research Policy Group (RPG) meeting where all the senior managers of research and development from British-American Tobacco, the parent company of Brown & Williamson and BAT-affiliated companies, had gathered to develop strategic research priorities and programs. For four and a half days, we discussed, among other things, how to make a safer product.
This extensive meeting generated over twelve pages of detailed notes memorializing the scientific discussions and a follow-up action program to achieve the strategic goals – a biologically safer tobacco product, a fire-safe cigarette, and so forth. We clearly articulated the company’s internal mantra: “We are in the nicotine-delivery business, and tar is the negative baggage.” In other words, nicotine is addictive and pharmacologically active, and there could be a product that was safer but never safe.
When the minutes of this meeting reached the senior executives of the company, they were clearly distressed, for we had thus articulated the antithesis of the mantra meant for the public: “Nicotine is there for taste and is not addictive; tobacco products can be made safer in many ways, from less biologically active to fire-safe.” I was unprepared for what happened next, even after twenty-five years of senior management experience.
The president and chief operating officer of the company, Mr. Thomas Sandefur, with the agreement of the chief executive officer/chairman Ray Pritchard, ordered an attorney, J. Kendrick Wells III, to rewrite the minutes. Mr. Wells rewrote the minutes so that there would be no document within the company records that would refute the prevailing external science or to be at odds with the company’s deliberate obfuscation relating to nicotine’s addictive nature and smoking-and-health issues. Mr. Wells had not attended the RPG meeting, but he vetted the minutes from twelve pages to two-and-a-half pages by including only the follow-up program and removing any reference to what actually happened. The specific purpose was to prevent the discovery of a document that could undermine decades of not telling the truth, in both legal and public statements. Clearly unethical. What followed next was just as egregious if not more alarming.
At the direction of BAT CEO/Chairman Sir Patrick Sheehey, a lawyer would be placed in every sequence of scientific communication and research. A system of sequestering and vetting controversial documents generated by any of the operating companies was ordered. In addition, all safer-cigarette work was terminated and all further work on that project was transferred overseas, along with the documents; for if there were a safer tobacco product, all other products would be deemed unsafe.
Now I was in a quandary as to what I do with what I knew.
I had a wife, two young children, one with a medical issue from birth requiring extensive medical coverage, a mortgage, a car, a $300,000-a year salary, and all the amenities of a successful executive. I was also keenly aware by now of how the industry intimidated defectors, paying legions of lawyers to attack their credibility in an effort to stop their behavior. I wanted no part of that and wanted to protect my family and to reengineer a transition back to the healthcare industry; for now I realized I had made a major error in my career.
Subsequently, I found myself turning to investigate health issues relating to the use of tobacco products, including the role played by additives and cigarette design on nicotine deliveries, marketing to adolescents, and the premature death caused by tobacco products. I also observed how the industry used science to generate controversy rather than using science to search for the truth.
The more I learned, the more I had difficulty looking in the mirror. I wondered how I would continue to explain to my two young children why I worked for the tobacco industry….
The industry nurtures the belief that a tobacco product is a natural product, grown in the ground and wrapped in paper. This is far from the truth. Tobacco products are laced with over 599 intentionally added chemical additives that are put into the tobacco and waste tobacco-derived materials in order to ameliorate the harshness generated when burning a bioorganic material. This bioorganic material, tobacco, generates over 5,000 toxic chemical pyrolysis compounds. These combustion chemicals are so toxic you cannot bury them in solid-waste disposal areas. These additives mask the acridity of nicotine as well as the irritation of smoke. They also facilitate the efficient delivery of an addictive substance.
In 1984, the FDA took coumarin off its GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe). Subsequently, the industry was not only forced to remove it from all of its cigarette products, but is also required to report any and all additives in cigarettes to Congress, annually. However, in spite of the obvious health risks, Brown & Williamson continued to use coumarin in pipe tobacco.
When I went to Mr. Sandefur in the fall of 1992 with this knowledge that coumarin tests as a lung-specific carcinogen, he instructed me to go back to the lab. Unless I found a substitute, he was not going to allow coumarin to be taken out of the product because its removal would affect the taste of the pipe, and this would negatively affect sales and profits. Sandefur’sreasoning: if we are not legally barred, we’ll continue to use it.
Coumarin was not removed from the pipe-tobacco formulation even though there was substantial, new scientific information that could put the pipe-tobacco user at an incremental health risk. This final issue caused me to be fired in March of 1993, when Mr. Sandefur became the new chief executive officer. At the time I left the company, coumarin was still used in the formulation of the Sir Walter Raleigh pipe-tobacco product.
When I was terminated, all I wanted was to forget four years and three months of a bad mistake and go back to where I belonged – the healthcare industry….
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