Merrell Williams Jr., 72, died on November 18 of a heart attack at a hospital in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Described as “the mole who became the tobacco industry’s worst nightmare, he played a crucial role in exposing the industry’s intentional coverup of smoking’s dangers, disclosing internal documents previously withheld under attorney-client privilege. (Cross-posted from Whistleblowing Today)
For forty years tobacco companies had won every lawsuit brought against them and never paid out a dime. In 1997 that all changed. The industry agreed to a historic deal to pay $368 billion in health-related damages, tear down billboards and retire Joe Camel. (Frontline)
Williams was hired in 1988 by a Louisville law firm to analyze and code confidential documents from the files of its client, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. A smoker himself, Williams was horrified to read documents showing that the company was hiding evidence that cigarettes were dangerous and addictive. Violating a confidentiality agreement, he smuggled out 4,000 pages of B&W documents and copied them, later passing them to attorneys engaged in litigation against tobacco companies.
The attorneys, Richard Scruggs and Mike Moore (then Mississippi’s Attorney General), took the documents to Rep. Henry Waxman, who was investigating the tobacco industry. Only a day earlier, CEOs for B&W and six other tobacco companies had sworn under oath at a Congressional hearing that the nicotine in cigarettes was not addictive. (Video below.)
The B&W documents were cited in a New York Times article published the next day that blasted B&W for not coming clean about the hazards of its products. Later, the documents fell into the hands of Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor at the University of California San Francisco medical school. In a CBS interview, Prof. Glantz described what he learned from the documents, including details of industry’s use of additives.
For awhile, they were using freon–the thing they used to use in refrigerators–as a way of puffing up the tobacco…what they called expanding it so it didn’t weigh as much. Turns out when you burn freon you get phosgene, which is nerve gas. – Stanton Glantz, on 60 Minutes, Nov. 12, 1995
Williams endured years of stressful smears and legal wrangling with the threat of imprisonment dangling overhead. For about a year, Williams was forbidden by a Kentucky court order from discussing his case with anyone–even his own lawyer–because the B&W documents at the center of the case were B&W “attorney-client privileged” information. Undeterred, Williams prepared a countersuit himself and filed it pro se with the court.
Emboldened by Williams’ audacious act, other whistle-blowers and defectors–such as Brown & Williamson’s Jeffrey Wigand and Philip Morris’ Ian Uydess–began coming forward with disclosures of their own. (LATimes)
Williams was seen but not heard in a November 12, 1965 “60 Minutes” video broadcast (below) that became famous for what it did not include: an interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a former Brown & Williamson executive, who had come forward with insider information. CBS executives censored that interview, fearing a lawsuit from B&W.
Mike Moore credited Williams with making a significant contribution, “under extraordinary circumstances and threat,” to a monumental legal battle with Big Tobacco. “The three big lies — cigarettes don’t cause cancer, nicotine is not addictive and we don’t market to kids — were all refuted by the B&W documents Merrell obtained,” said Moore.
Brown and Williamson and its law firm eventually dropped their lawsuits against the whistleblower and settled his personal injury suit against them for heart problems attributed to smoking. Afterward, with $1.5 million he received through Richard Scruggs, Williams lived a quiet life in the Virgin Islands, Florida and Mississippi. He wrote about his experiences in the memoir, “Playing With the Tobacco Mafia.”
Merrell Williams, Jr., the son of Merrell and Peggy Williams, was born in Monroe, Louisiana, on January 26, 1941, and raised in west Texas. He earned a Ph.D. in theater arts from the University of Denver and worked as an actor, playwright and junior college teacher before taking a job with Brown & Williams’ law firm that dramatically changed his life. He married and divorced three times.
Williams received the Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage (1997) and the Gleitsman Foundation’s Citizen Activist Award (1998) for his contributions as a whistleblower. In addition, a resolution introduced in Congress sought to honor Williams with a congressional medal. Daniel Ellsberg wrote him a letter praising him as a hero.
A private service for Dr. Williams was held on Friday, November 22. He is survived by his wife, Christina Daltro, two daughters, Jennifer Smith and Sarah Ridpath, and five grandchildren. A permanent guest book has been set up in William’s name at legacy.com where visitors can light a candle and leave messages of respect and sympathy.