Big tobacco's toll: blowing the whistle

September 26, 1999|By Jan Winburn | Jan Winburn,Sun Staff

"Assuming the Risk: The Mavericks, the Lawyers, and the Whistle-Blowers Who Beat Big Tobacco," by Michael Orey. Little Brown & Co. 352 pages. $24.95.

It is the kind of assignment journalists dream of: a story of epic proportion, a drama spilling surprise at every juncture and peopled by flawed characters with grand ideals and dark motives. It is The Book Idea most daily newspaper journalists crave.

Covering the great American tobacco war for the American Lawyer magazine, Michael Orey (now an editor at the Wall Street Journal) recognized the glimmer of a golden book opportunity. Behind the lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers and the unprecedented defeat of big tobacco were too-good-to-be-true details: cloak and dagger meetings, an eccentric whistleblower, corporate swagger and arrogance that rivaled anything a writer could have made up.

The problem with Orey's book, "Assuming the Risk," comes in the story's telling. The author is at his best when sketching his cast of characters and showing how their lives intersected. But he fails to bring life to the legal and medical details that constitute most of his story.

The book opens in rural Mississippi, with the death of a poor black contractor named Nathan Horton. In his final months, Horton, who had lung cancer, filed suit against the makers of Pall Mall cigarettes, which he had smoked for more than 30 years. His lawyer is Don Barrett, a most unlikely choice.

Orey paints Horton and Barrett vividly and with complexity. We meet, for instance, two Don Barretts. There is the unreconstructed Southerner who, as a teen-ager in 1960, set an eight-foot cross ablaze and 30 years later still goes teary-eyed recounting Confederate heroics. And there is the Barrett who has undergone an inner change, the "born again" Christian who sees in the Old and New Testatment teachings that would not fit with any sort of racial animus. As he goes to battle for his dying neighbor, Barrett knows no tobacco company has ever paid a penny to anyone who claimed that smoking had harmed their health. He considers his foes truly forces of evil to be vanquished.

Orey does the same superb job of bringing to life others in his band of mavericks, most notably the state's attorney general, Michael Moore, and whistleblower Merrell Williams.

When Williams, a washed-up actor, becomes a paralegal for a tobacco company, he grows increasingly alarmed by what he learns and eventually begins to steal documents from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. proving the industry had systematically deceived the public.

His theatrical flair is evident: He wears a pair of baggy pants from a thrift shop to accommodate large caches of paper, and occasionally carried a bag of potato chips on his way out of the building, hoping his crinkling the bag would mask any rustling sounds. At times, he strapped on a rubber corset and used it as a rubber band to secure B&W documents to his body. Sometimes, he merely stuffed his briefcase with stolen papers and walked out.

Williams' own introduction to cigarettes had come when he played Tom in a production of "The Glass Menagerie." "The stage directions for the first scene call for Tom to walk onstage and light up," Orey notes. "Then he utters his opening line, one that would seem apt years later, when Williams was working at B&W: 'Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve.' "

Unfortunately, these fine portraits serve more as digression rather than main course. They deepen the story and lift the narrative along, but the long passages of legal explanation and especially Orey's habit of quoting lengthy and lifeless documents rather than interpreting them drain the momentum. In the end, rather than a legal thriller like "A Civil Action," Orey delivers a book that sparks the reader's interest, then lets it smolder and die.

It is almost as if two people wrote the book, one a very talented journalist, and the other, a lawyer.

Jan Winburn is The Sun's assistant managing editor for enterprise reporting. She was the principal editor, among many other projects, of The Sun's investigation of the cigar industry, published in 1998.

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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