Tobacco whistleblower testifies industry underplays health risks

High-profile whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco scientist in the U.S., told a Montreal court hearing a $27-billion class-action lawsuit that cigarette companies were underplaying the product's potential health risks for decades.

Inspiration for movie The Insider takes stand in Montreal in $27B class-action lawsuit

'Insider' testifies in Quebec Big Tobacco suit

10 years ago
Duration 2:17
Sean Henry reports on famed whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand's first day of testimony in the class action lawsuit against Canada's top cigarette makers.

Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on the U.S. tobacco industry in 1993 in a move that inspired an award-winning Hollywood film, told a Montreal court today that cigarette companies were underplaying the product's potential health risks.

Wigand was in Quebec Superior Court on Monday as part of a $27-billion class-action lawsuit against Canada's three biggest cigarette companies.

Wigand, a former chief tobacco scientist at Brown and Williamson Tobacco in Louisville, Ky., is testifying in the case, which pits the cigarette companies against groups representing 1.8 million smokers in Quebec.

It's considered the biggest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, and it is the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.

A group of people who have become seriously ill from smoking and a separate group of people who say they are unable to quit are being heard together.

Both groups allege Imperial Tobacco, JTI MacDonald and Rothmans Benson & Hedges did everything possible to encourage addiction and are seeking a $27-billion settlement.

Wigand testified that within three months of joining Brown and Williamson in 1989, he became aware of some contradictions in the messages broadcast by the company.

He said scientists working for the firms knew of the health risks associated with tobacco. However, Wigand said, the industry would engage in what he called "creating friction" about the scientific understanding with the public.

Mario Bujold, head of one of the anti-tobacco groups in the lawsuit, said the spin doctrine went on for decades.

"They decide to hire people and research to find data that could help them give that message that smoking wasn't dangerous," he said.

Wigand told Quebec Superior Court that the industry engaged in obfuscation, criticism and denial of the facts.

He said he was under the impression he was hired to help develop a safer cigarette – which meant Brown and Williamson was aware smoking caused health risks.

Wigand's testimony is expected to wrap up on Wednesday.

Famous whistleblower

Wigand blew the whistle on the U.S. tobacco industry in 1993 when he told CBS's 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman that tobacco companies were concealing some of the health risks of cigarettes.

He was asked to testify at a lawsuit against five large U.S. companies.

The lawsuit culminated with a landmark $368-billion settlement between tobacco companies and state governments in the U.S., as well as individual victims of smoking.

The cigarette companies, including the parent company of Canada's Imperial Tobacco, Britain-based BATCO, were told to hand over documents relating to their research and processes in creating the addictive product. 

Wigand's testimony and expertise inspired The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

At the time, the jury taking part in the Florida lawsuit were ordered not to watch  The Insider after the lawyer representing Brown and Williamson Tobacco claimed it could sway the vote.