LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Merrell Williams Jr., a one-time Kentucky paralegal who took on Big Tobacco as a whistleblower who leaked internal documents exposing health risks and the addictiveness of cigarettes, has died in Mississippi, decades after he joined the fight that forever changed perceptions of smoking.
Williams died last week of a heart attack in Ocean Springs, Miss., his daughter, Jennifer Smith, said Monday. He was 72.
He worked for a Kentucky law firm representing the then-Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and leaked thousands of pages of internal memos and studies concerning smoking and health that provided newfound ammunition to tobacco opponents.
The information made national headlines. News organizations reported the information showed Brown & Williamson executives knew decades earlier that nicotine was addictive and that they funneled potentially damaging documents to lawyers to keep them secret. A few years later, the tobacco industry agreed to a major settlement with the states over smoking-related health care costs.
Mike Moore, as Mississippi’s attorney general during that era, was at the forefront of the legal fight against the tobacco industry. He remembered Williams on Monday for making a significant contribution to the effort that put cigarette makers on the defensive.
“The now famous Brown & Williamson documents that Merrell was able to provide us, under extraordinary circumstances and threat, changed the course of our litigation,” Moore said in an email. “We got on a plane and took those documents to Congress and the FDA” (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
“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.”
It was another tobacco industry whistleblower from Louisville, however, who gained considerably more notoriety during the turbulent era. One-time Brown & Williamson executive Jeffrey Wigand revealed industry secrets to the CBS news show “60 Minutes.”
His role inspired the movie “The Insider,” which focused on Wigand and a battle within CBS over whether to air the “60 Minutes” story about his allegations that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes and lied about their addictive power.
Williams said his role in the legal fight took a personal toll. He told The Courier-Journal that the pressures contributed to a divorce, and he eventually moved to Mississippi.
In a 1995 interview with the Louisville newspaper, Williams said he felt like he never saw a friendly face in Louisville, where Brown & Williamson was headquartered. The company was a big employer and donor to the community until it merged with another tobacco giant, R.J. Reynolds, based in North Carolina.
“I think to a lot of people Merrell Williams is a hero,” he said of himself in the interview. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Williams, however, faced accusations of violating attorney-client privilege by copying the documents while he was a paralegal. Brown & Williamson alleged that anti-tobacco lawyers paid for Williams’ house, car and boat in return for copies of the documents. Williams said someone lent him money and he was paying it back.
His daughter, Jennifer Smith, said the ordeal caused him considerable stress. But his role in fighting the tobacco companies “was one of his greatest passions,” she said.
“Without his bravery … to actually stand up and take a risk that no one had taken before, some of the other things that happened afterward would have never been able to happen,” she said Monday. “He’s a fallen hero, in a way, for what he did.”
A private service for Williams was held Friday in Ocean Springs.