Merrell Williams Jr. may never have risen to the status of a household name in Kentucky, but his pivotal role in bringing down Big Tobacco continues to impact nearly every resident of this state. The thousands of pages of internal memos and studies concerning smoking and health that Williams leaked as a paralegal at a Kentucky law firm representing the then-Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. helped lead to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies from which states continue to receive millions of dollars annually.
In many ways, Williams is a major reason why tobacco has fallen from being the number one cash crop and major source of income for hundreds of small family farms to being a secondary crop raised primarily by a handful of large farmers. In his own way, Williams indirectly is the reason restrictions on public smoking exist in communities throughout Kentucky and why that state’s tax on cigarettes has risen from a paltry 3 cents a pack to 60 cents a pack.
The information Williams leaked showed Brown & Williamson executives knew decades earlier nicotine was addictive and they funneled potentially damaging documents to lawyers to keep them secret.
Mike Moore, Mississippi’s attorney general during that era, was at the forefront of the legal fight against the tobacco industry and remembers Williams 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 threats, 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 (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.”
However, it was another tobacco industry whistleblower from Louisville 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.”
Williams later said his role in the legal fight took a personal toll. He told The Courier-Journal in Louisville that the pressures contributed to a divorce, and he eventually moved to Mississippi.
In a 1995 interview, 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 loaned 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.”
Indeed he is a fallen hero who helped knock Big Tobacco off of its pedestal and led to changes in laws and attitudes that are saving the lives of people throughout the state and nation.