inside The Insider
Energized by the success of the Hollywood film about him, UB alumnus Jeffrey Wigand, '73. lobbies for smoke-free kids
Editor's Note: Thanks to a few twists of fate and Jeffrey Wigand's frantic travel schedule, UB Today recently had a unique glimpse inside the life of a man who might well claim the title of the most famous insider in the country. When our writer caught up with the subject of this fall's popular film The Insider, the title character was in a hotel suite preparing for the movie's New York City premiere.
The limousine picks us up at 6:30, so you need to be back by 5 o'clock."
Jeffrey Wigand asks forgiveness once again for interrupting his attention to the telephone interview at hand. The man at the apex of one of the most highly publicized corporate whistle-blowing incidents in history is telling one of his daughters that it's okay to go out and get her hair done before that evening's premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre.
"They're having a ball," says the divorced Wigand of the girls-Gretchen, 26; Rachel, 13; and Nicole, 11. (The younger girls live with their mother in Texas.) "It's important for them to be with me in New York for the premiere. A lot of this started with my daughters asking me why I was working for a tobacco company."
Wigand's trip to New York is sandwiched between the film's premiere showings in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and right before its November 5 national distribution rollout. He seems remarkably relaxed for a man who is still sore from an auto accident a few days earlier and still overcoming the effects of his emotionally (and financially) draining experience as the highest-ranking former tobacco industry executive to go public with concerns about the health risks of smoking.
A native New Yorker and the holder of three degrees from the University at Buffalo, Wigand appeared on the nation's radar-and television-screens in 1995, when CBS aired veteran journalist Mike Wallace's interview with him on 60 Minutes. It is that interview and the course of events that led to its broadcast that provide the dramatic core of The Insider. Prior to that interview, Wigand had begun to provide information about the practices of his former employer, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, to government agencies investigating the industry.
Wigand went on to play an important role in the legal action filed against tobacco companies by the attorneys general of 40 states. When a settlement was announced on June 20, 1997, one of its provisions was the dismissal of a suit brought against Wigand by Brown & Williamson. He describes that date as a "high day" in his life-right up there with today's family reunion in New York for the film premiere.
Another period that Wigand remembers with high regard is the time he spent as a student at UB.
He enrolled at the university in the late sixties after four years of military service-much of it in Japan-with a keen desire to work in the health professions. He thought about becoming a physician, but ultimately concluded his academic career with a doctorate in biochemistry; he also holds a B.A. in chemistry and an M.A. in biochemistry.
"I always had a curiosity about the fundamental underpinnings of things; I dissected frogs and did chemistry experiments as a kid," Wigand explains. "My father was a bit concerned."
He dove into his coursework at UB, transitioning from bachelor's to master's and then from master's to Ph.D. programs without even taking the time to attend commencement ceremonies. He supported himself by teaching judo part time at UB, the Delaware Avenue YMCA and the Erie County Sheriff's Department, and by working as a nighttime surgical nurse at Our Lady of Victory Hospital. While working on his Ph.D. (which he received in 1973), he conducted research in the laboratories of both Children's Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.
He characterizes his years in and around UB as robust: "I enjoyed that environment. My training and formal studies in the fundamental sciences and their integration with the soft sciences helped me to become more than just a scientist. Education was important in our family, and UB fed that thirst. They taught me to use science in a search for truth. I owe a lot to the university."
Wigand quickly launched into a professional career that led him to senior management positions with Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer on the way to becoming vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson, where he worked from 1988 to 1993. "The only reason I went to a tobacco company," he explains, "was to make a safer cigarette."
After Wigand took issue with the fact that Brown & Williamson was using a controversial additive in pipe tobacco, he eventually was dismissed by the company. A chain of events ultimately resulted in his decision to provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with his inside information.
The ordeal that followed truly is the stuff of Hollywood. The film The Insider is based on a 1996 Vanity Fair article that chronicled the turmoil Wigand went through-which included being the target of extensive legal investigations and a campaign to discredit him, a divorce from his wife of 10 years, and the evolution of the 60 Minutes piece produced by Lowell Bergman (portrayed in the movie by Al Pacino).
Although he has been hailed a hero and bestowed with such accolades as an honorary degree from Connecticut College and an award from the American Cancer Society, he downplays such adulation. "I don't think I'm a super-extraordinary person. I'm just regular Jeff," Wigand says. A few moments later, however, he describes himself as "an intensely passionate person about the things I believe in-and I'm willing to stick my neck on the line for it."
After the hubbub surrounding the premiere of The Insider dies down, Wigand will be back on the road pursuing his latest passion: the effort to educate children about the dangers of tobacco.
Wigand, who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, is the founder and president of the nonprofit Smoke-Free Kids, Inc. The organization presents educational seminars and provides scientific and technical input to organizations that develop policy or regulate tobacco products, such as the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I'm teaching every day, but not in the same school and classroom," says Wigand, who taught high school in Louisville after he left Brown & Williamson and earned a graduate teaching degree during that period. (He was one of 51 teachers honored nationally with the Sallie Mae First Class Teacher of the Year award in 1996.)
"I'm working with at-risk kids and gifted kids in groups ranging from 25 to one thousand at a time. I'm taking my experiences and using them to enable children to make responsible, healthy choices," he explains. For example, he says, "I teach kids how to recognize what's real and what's not real in advertising." He also makes presentations as part of grand rounds in hospitals and medical schools and at programs for attorneys, business students and anyone else concerned about the science, ethics and politics of the tobacco industry.
"I'm not a zealot," he points out. "But if people choose to smoke as adults, they should make that decision with all the information available to them." His passions do rise when it comes to protecting children, whom Wigand believes are targeted by tobacco companies "to replace the people who die."
The rewards of his efforts are great, Wigand says. "There are days when the kids say, 'Wow, you really made a difference in my life.' I can't measure that."
Wigand isn't teaching on this particular day, however. He's much more interested in relishing the brief time he has to spend with his daughters. Still, with the premiere just a few hours away, how does Wigand feel about being the subject of a major motion picture?
"Surreal," he answers immediately.
When he decided to talk to the FDA, he says, he never could have imagined that a highly acclaimed film by a respected director (Michael Mann) would be in his future. He is flattered that actor Russell Crowe invested so much time and effort in his portrayal of Wigand's character. "He does an exquisite job of portraying someone who is alive. It's uncanny. He's like a clone. There is a tremendous amount of accuracy and precision in replicating the feelings, the emotions, the psychological drama, the gait. He said he wanted to do me honor."
Wigand also expresses satisfaction with the film's ability to condense three years of his life into two and a half hours. "The picture accurately reflects the truth. Michael Mann has maintained that fidelity and has made a great picture," Wigand says.
While it involves such issues as First Amendment rights and corporate responsibility, the fundamental message of The Insider is that "an individual can take a stand and make a difference," Wigand says. As he travels the country today in the name of Smoke-Free Kids, Inc., that is the lesson he is driven to convey.
"I'm teaching kids that they have an intrinsic ability to make a difference," he points out. The effort is "small right now, but it's building," he says. And, he adds with the authority of someone who has known deep despair, "It's fun."
Freelance writer Leon M. Rubin is president of the Rubin Communications Group in Boca Raton, Florida.