tocacco plant Native American Tobaccoo flower, leaves, and buds

tocacco Tobacco is an annual or bi-annual growing 1-3 meters tall with large sticky leaves that contain nicotine. Native to the Americas, tobacco has a long history of use as a shamanic inebriant and stimulant. It is extremely popular and well-known for its addictive potential.

tocacco nicotina Nicotiana tabacum

tocacco Nicotiana rustica leaves. Nicotiana rustica leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana tabacum (common tobacco) leaves contain about 1 to 3%

tocacco cigar A cigar is a tightly rolled bundle of dried and fermented tobacco which is ignited so that its smoke may be drawn into the mouth. Cigar tobacco is grown in significant quantities in Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Sumatra, Philippines, and the Eastern United States.

tocacco Tobacco is an agricultural product processed from the fresh leaves of plants in the genus Nicotiana. It can be consumed, used as an organic pesticide, and in the form of nicotine tartrate it is used in some medicines. In consumption it may be in the form of cigarettes smoking, snuffing, chewing, dipping tobacco, or snus.

tocacco
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Big Tobacco’s nightmare

He is one of the most famous whistleblowers in the world, but his face is relatively unknown.

Jeffrey Wigand

Tobacco marketing specifically preys on children for future sales growth and more recognise the Camel mascot than Ronald McDonald, says Jeffrey Wigand.

Jeffrey Wigand, the scientist who revealed Big Tobacco’s dirtiest secrets and found a bullet in his letterbox, says he’s “an ugly old man with white hair”. But the world knows him as the fattened-up but still handsome Russell Crowe in a celebrated film.

Wigand likes the movie. “I think Russell Crowe did an amazing job of capturing my essence,” he says on the phone from his home in Michigan. “I was sorry he didn’t get an Academy Award.”

The Insider showed one person can bring about change, that the truth will out, and that tobacco companies will fight to bury it. And that life is horrible for a whistleblower with kids.

“The death threats were never directed towards me, they were directed towards my two little girls,” he says. “The bullet in the

mailbox wasn’t for me, it was for my kids. For a father, that really goes at the core. Here I’m doing something I believe is ethical and moral and as a result I could create harm for my children. It was difficult.”

Wigand’s revelations about Big Tobacco’s lies and deceptions helped sink its reputation forever, and nowadays he spends his life spreading the word and advising governments.

He is in New Zealand this week to talk to the Maori Affairs select committee, which is investigating the effect of smoking on Maori, and to give lectures. His message: throw everything at the problem.

The anti-smoking lobby – Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) is sponsoring Wigand’s trip – has pulled off a coup by bringing a world-renowned hero of the movement to New Zealand. It hopes his visit will “light a fire” under the public and the politicians.

“The heartlessness of the people who work in the tobacco companies is beyond the imagination of most New Zealanders,” says Dr Marewa Glover, director of the Centre for Tobacco Control Research at Auckland University. “We are a little bit naive about how evil people can be.”

Wigand went into the industry hoping to do good. His job was to make a safer cigarette.

The scientist had spent 25 years in the medical and healthcare industry. He was, he told a US congressional subcommittee on whistleblower legislation in 2007, “steeped in the mindset of using science to search for the truth, to make products better and to improve the quality of life and save lives”.

He had gone into the wrong industry, but it was only later that he realised he “had made a major error in my career”. Also, as he admits, he liked the salary – $300,000, in 1989! – and the benefits. He and his wife lived with their two young daughters in a big house in Louisville, Kentucky.

The story has now become famous. As vice-president of research and development at Brown and Williamson, a subsidiary of the giant British and American Tobacco, he found that corporate lawyers were rewriting the minutes of scientists’ meetings.

Internally, the company executives had a cynical slogan: “Hook ‘em young, hook ‘em for life.” They knew cigarettes were addictive. But when speaking outside, they told another story. “I believe nicotine is not addictive,” his boss at Brown and Williamson, Thomas Sandefur, told congress.

Wigand saw how the company falsified documents, how they left coumarin, a cancer-causing substance, in pipe tobacco even after they had taken it out of cigarettes. Why? “They did not have to.” The government required tobacco companies to disclose all additives used in making cigarettes. But not tobacco.

Wigand urged Sandefur that coumarin be removed from all the company’s products. Sandefur told him to go back to the lab and find a substitute for coumarin. “But he also told me that despite evidence that coumarin was a carcinogen, it would not be removed from pipe tobacco because it would affect the taste of the product and negatively impact sales and profits,” Wigand told congress. It was this issue which led to his sacking in 1993.

Russell Crowe
Wigand’s family received death threats. Says Russell Crowe: ‘I think he’s a man who should be honoured.’

Wigand didn’t blow the whistle immediately. He wanted to retain his big severance package, which guaranteed the health care needed by one of his daughters, who had a chronic medical problem. The package required him to keep mum about what he had seen at work.

In early 1994 he told the company, as he was required to under the terms of his severance, that he had been talking to congressmen about tobacco science. “What came next changed the course of all future actions and changed my family. Two anonymous phone calls were received… that threatened the safety of my young daughters with physical harm if I co-operated with anyone about the internal working of B&W.” From that day on, Wigand had no more contact with the company – except in court.

In April 1994, “I watched the seven heads of major US tobacco companies, including Mr Sandefur, testify before congress under oath that nicotine was not addictive and smoking was no more dangerous than eating Twinkies. This was really the `last straw’, as they say. I realised that if I remained silent, I was a bystander to harm and I was no different from the industry executives.” He literally “could not look in the mirror”.

The story of his whistleblower testimony to CBS News’s 60 Minutes programme, and how CBS delayed airing it after B&W threatened to sue, is the heart of The Insider. The company pursued him through the courts and issued a 500-page dossier smearing his character. Armed guards lived at the house, opening the mail, starting the car in the morning, escorting his daughters to school and him to work (he was teaching science and Japanese at a high school). The threats grew so numerous that a sheriff’s deputy was put outside his classroom door.

The pressure, he tells the Sunday Star-Times, was terrible, and he sometimes wondered whether he was doing the right thing. “Did I believe it was true and the truth should be told? Yes. Did I put my family in harm’s way in order to speak the truth? That was always questionable.” His marriage broke under the strain.

WIGAND’S VOICE is that of a New Yorker born and bred, with its distinctive stretched vowels (“torgets” for “targets”, “horm” for “harm”). He also has the New Yorker’s verve and punch, putting a series of rhetorical questions and supplying the answers. He often ends his sentences with a question – “OK?” – to make sure you’re still with him. He won a national award as a high school teacher, and you can see why. Wigand grabs his listener by the ear.

He will tell New Zealand that the main thing is to “denormalise tobacco”, and that a whole series of policies are needed to do that. The first thing is to put cigarettes and tobacco in plain packaging, along with the “appropriate labelling – `If used as intended, it kills ya.”‘ Horrible graphics on the packaging ensure that “every time someone buys a pack of cigarettes, they get a message sent”.

At the same time, the government must raise taxes to increase the price of tobacco and keep increasing it: “I would probably go for maybe 15% a year,” he tells the Star-Times. Price increases reduce the number of smokers. They help stop the kids starting, and motivate existing smokers, 90% of whom say they want to stop.

At the same time, he says, the money government makes from the tax increases must go back into big cessation and prevention programmes. It shouldn’t just put the money into the government’s coffers, Wigand says (but that’s where the big increase in tobacco taxes this year did go).

The tobacco companies’ warning that price rises will lead to a massive black market and cigarette smuggling are “just crap”, Wigand says. “That’s been proven in Canada, OK?” Wigand, a consultant to the Canadian government, said smuggling was a manageable problem except with the Native American “First Nations” on the border between Canada and the US. As sovereign nations, they are tax free, and sell cheap cigarettes. Canadians flocked to their shops and brought cheap smokes back to sell.

The other smugglers in Canada, he points out, included tobacco companies themselves. A decade-long legal battle – the last case ended in April – saw four tobacco companies fined $1.7b for a massive smuggling operation in the 1990s, once described by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as “the biggest corporate fraud in Canadian history”.

The National-led government has been reluctant to ban cigarette promotion at the point of sale, on the grounds that there are doubts about whether this measure alone reduces sales. But that is not the point, says Wigand. The point is to denormalise what is a toxic substance, to change tobacco from being just another commodity you buy at the supermarket.

Tobacco should be sold in plain packs, with all their terrible ingredients specified on the outside, in special shops with no advertising. “Tobacco products should not be within reach of a child, they need to be behind the counter, they need to be asked for by a person of the appropriate age.”

Tobacco companies nowadays bill themselves as “socially responsible”, a paradoxical claim from an industry that kills 5000 New Zealanders a year. As part of that code, they say they want to stop sales to young people.

“They talk out of both sides of their mouth,” says Wigand. “I mean, that’s the problem with the industry, it’s an industry that has a history that shows you can’t trust ‘em. And it’s not just my conclusion, it’s the conclusion of all the courts that have looked at the documents and what they did.

“Since the late 40s, in 1948 when they put the first filter in the cigarettes, they knew the filter did nothing to prevent the delivery of nicotine. Then they found out that by adding toilet-bowl cleaners you could get more nicotine to the brain faster, with ammonia chemistry, OK?

“Did they ever tell anybody? Did they tell the surgeon-general? Or the World Health Organisation? Did they tell any governmental agency that’s how they were constructing and designing cigarettes to be much more addictive? No, OK?”

But they did do studies of children to develop their marketing programmes. Joe Camel, the advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes, “is recognised more by three- and six-year-olds than Ronald McDonald”. The industry preyed on the natural desire of adolescents to look older, more sophisticated, and rebellious. It targeted girls, promising them that cigarettes would keep them thin.

The result is that most people take up smoking in their early teens, and become addicted then. The decision to smoke is not an informed one taken by adults, as the industry claims, says Wigand.

He runs a programme in schools called Smoke-Free Kids that tackles the cigarette companies head-on. He and his co-workers – often students themselves – talk about the horrible stuff in cigarettes. They tell them they are addictive and that the cigarette companies know it. “Addiction is a process where a chemical controls your body. Do you want to be in control of yourself, or do you want a chemical controlling you? And that chemical controlling you makes money for someone else. And it will make you sick.” They tell the kids “how the industry works to get them. They don’t like that idea.”

If Big Tobacco is perhaps the greatest threat to the planet’s children, Wigand’s battle with the industry brought a very specific threat to his own kids. But now his daughters are grown up, one studying molecular pharmacology and the other doing clinical psychology. They tell him they’re glad he did what he did. Rachel even gives lectures about her experiences as the daughter of a whistleblower.

“I have good relations with them, in spite of everything that happened,” he says proudly. “They were little girls, don’t forget, when all this happened. Now they understand.”

Jeffrey Wigand speaks:

On not being “anti-smoking”: “If somebody chooses as a fully informed adult to smoke, and if they do it in a smoking environment that doesn’t have any innocent victims, then – buyer beware.”

On the proposal to ban all cigarette sales in New Zealand by 2020: “I don’t know if you’re going to be able to stop all sales… I don’t know how you would enforce it. Who is going to be the cop?”

On how Big Tobacco targets children: “The industry survives by getting children in, by tricking children, not by getting adults to switch brands… They know if they can hook ‘em when they’re 11 years old, they will get a lifetime of at least 20-30 years of buying a product that is addictive and ultimately will create some form of disease or death, or both.”

On time and the struggle: “The tobacco control movement has been seriously in existence for only a couple of decades. Tobacco production and dissemination of the product has been around for centuries. Many things have happened in the past two decades that have been great movements in the right direction, but it will take more energy and drive over many more decades.”

On telling consumers what additives are in cigarettes: “You have full disclosure on the package of your milk or your aspirin or your vitamins, right? The consumer has the right to know if you’re adding ammonia toilet bowl cleaner to tobacco to boost the impact and the addictive quality of nicotine. You need to know that, and you should know that.”

By ANTHONY HUBBARD
Sunday Star Times

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