'The Insider,' Jeffrey Wigand, testifies in Quebec tobacco case

MONTREAL – A famous former American tobacco executive says the industry worked to suppress knowledge that smoking was harmful to one’s health.

Dr. Jeffrey Wigand is the former tobacco executive and scientist whose decision to become a whistleblower became the plot of a Hollywood film.

Now testifying in a Quebec class-action case, he says employees who worked in research and development were well aware of the effects of smoking — even as the industry sounded a reassuring tone in public.

Wigand says he was hired in 1989 by Brown & Williamson to create what he described as a less-harmful cigarette, so the company obviously understood the danger.

But at the same time he says the industry was discrediting, undermining, criticizing and obfuscating public health findings about smoking.

“It was (about) how to keep the controversy alive, create not the admission of what was known but just to create friction,” Wigand told the Quebec trial on Monday.

“So the controversy was, ‘It’s not addictive, it doesn’t the harm the user,'” Wigand said, “when clearly the companies understood that, when used as intended, it kills the innocent bystander and addicts them in the process.”

He says lawyers hired by the tobacco firms also helped to cover up the true effects of smoking, and they manipulated research documents to hide the truth.

Wigand is testifying on behalf of plaintiffs in a landmark $27 billion lawsuit in Quebec — believed to be the biggest class-action suit ever seen in Canada.

The case pits an estimated 1.8 million Quebecers against three major Canadian tobacco manufacturers — Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald.

Wigand is known as the first and only major tobacco executive to turn whistleblower against the industry. His story was the subject of a 1999 film starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, “The Insider.”

Wigand worked for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson as vice-president for research and development, from 1989 to 1993. When he was let go when he said that high-ranking executives at the company knew about additives to cigarettes that caused cancer.

He has been called upon by various governments to consult on tobacco-control policies, including Canada in 1999.

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