Merrell Williams Jr., a onetime Kentucky paralegal who took on the tobacco industry by leaking internal documents exposing the health risks and addictiveness of cigarettes, died Nov. 18 in Ocean Springs, Miss. He was 72.
The cause was a heart attack, said a daughter, Jennifer Smith.
Mr. Williams worked for a Kentucky law firm that represented Brown & Williamson Tobacco, now part of R.J. Reynolds. He leaked thousands of pages of internal memos and studies concerning smoking and health that provided ammunition to tobacco opponents. He had copied the documents surreptitiously starting in 1988, and they were made public in 1994.
The information made national headlines. According to news reports, the information showed that Brown & Williamson executives knew decades earlier that nicotine was addictive and that they had funneled potentially damaging documents to lawyers to keep them secret.
A few years later, the tobacco industry agreed to a massive settlement with the attorneys general of 46 states over smoking-related health costs.
Mike Moore, Mississippi’s attorney general during that era, was at the forefront of the legal fight against the tobacco industry.
“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 e-mail. “We got on a plane and took those documents to Congress and the FDA,” he said, referring to 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,” Moore said.
It was another tobacco industry whistleblower from Louisville, however, who gained considerably more fame.
Onetime Brown & Williamson executive Jeffrey Wigand revealed industry secrets to the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” His role inspired the 1999 movie “The Insider,” which focused on a battle within CBS over whether to air the “60 Minutes” report about Wigand’s allegations that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes and lied about their addictive power.
Mr. Williams said his role in the fight took a personal toll. He told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the pressures contributed to a divorce, and he eventually moved to Mississippi.
In a 1995 interview with the newspaper, Mr. 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 community projects until it merged with North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds, another tobacco giant.
“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.”
Mr. Williams faced accusations of violating attorney-client privilege by copying the documents while he was a paralegal. Brown & Williamson alleged that antitobacco lawyers paid for Mr. Williams’s house, car and boat in return for copies of the documents. Mr. Williams said that someone lent him money and that he was paying it back.
His daughter said the ordeal caused him considerable stress. But fighting the tobacco companies “was one of his greatest passions,” she said.