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Jeffrey Wigand became famous in the 1990s when he took public his knowledge that cigarette companies had tried to conceal the dangers of smoking.
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Driven by a potent mixture of moral outrage and desire for revenge, Wigand slowly overcame his fear of retribution to expose the tobacco industry's lies about the health risks of cigarettes. On November 29, 1995 he gave deposition testimony in a case brought by the state of Mississippi against tobacco companies in which he stated that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine content,
suppressed efforts to develop safer cigarettes and lied about the addictive properties of nicotine. Excerpts of his testimony were published in the Wall Street Journal. After months of debating whether to risk provoking the ire of the big tobacco companies, on February 4, 1996 CBS aired a 60 Minutes interview with Wigand during which he made his attacks on the tobacco industry directly to the nation.
Wigand's decision to become a whistleblower came at great cost to his personal life and even brought risks to his personal safety. Under enormous pressure and stress, Wigand turned to drinking heavily. His drinking problem became so severe that he stole a bottle of liquor from a convenience store, got into a drunken physical confrontation with his wife and eventually filed for divorce. Brown & Williamson then unleashed a ruthless smear campaign against Wigand that publicized – and greatly exaggerated – such incidents to paint him as a raging alcoholic, wife-beater and pathological liar. Wigand's home and his lawyers' offices were broken into and robbed of personal documents, and he received several death threats that forced him to abandon his home and live secretly in various hotels with a full-time bodyguard.
For braving such hardships, and exposing such revelatory information about the tobacco industry, Jeffrey Wigand will go down in American history as one of the most daring and important whistleblowers of all time. His exposure of tobacco industry lies led directly to stronger government curbs on the behavior of the tobacco industry. As an expert witness in litigation, he helped to bring about the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement in which tobacco companies agreed to pay billions of dollars to states to offset medical costs incurred treating smoking-related illnesses. Wigand also founded a nonprofit called Smoke-free Kids to educate children about the dangers of smoking. His dramatic life story as popularized in the highly acclaimed 1999 film The Insider, in which Russell Crowe portrayed Wigand's part. While many revere Wigand as a hero, he maintains that he simply did what any decent human being in his situation would have done. "I am honored that people think I am a hero," he once said. "But I do not accept that moniker as others are much more deserving of it. I did what was right… have no regrets and would do it again. As you see, we were just ordinary people placed in some extraordinary situations and did the right thing… as all should do."
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