Fakin’ It

Inside “smoker’s rights” groups–Big Tobacco’s first effort to speak on behalf of the people.

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Not long ago, he represented R.J. Reynolds on the front lines of its war against proposed smoking restrictions and taxes on tobacco products. Today he insists his name not be used, given all the threats he has received for championing the cause of the tobacco giant. Besides, he says, he signed a confidentiality statement.

Secrecy aside, his mission, he says, was to help assemble the nation of smokers into something that would pass for a grassroots movement capable of fending off regulation, excise taxes, and any other threat to RJR’s bottom line. A “field coordinator,” he was one of some two dozen assigned to hold the line in their respective regions of the country.

Each region, in fact, had a genuine popular uprising made up of legislators, physicians, consumers, parents–all decrying the death and disease wrought by cigarettes. RJR’s response, far from merely providing information to a voluntary movement of smokers’ rights advocates, sounds more like conscription. Sometimes he had to contact hundreds of smokers to field a ragtag army of 20 or 30 people for a smokers’ rights meeting. He likens it to the old Marxist practice of party-building, one cell at a time.

“You try not to ever let your link be known,” he says. “If your name never pops up in the paper, you’re doing your job.” The more the smokers’ rights movement could be presented as a spontaneous grassroots movement independent of the tobacco industry and its obvious vested economic interests, the greater the movement’s credibility and chances for success. For this, RJR paid him handsomely–more than $60,000 a year plus hefty bonuses. Not bad for part-time work.

But when he fought anti-tobacco measures directly, outright legislative victories were few and far between. Often he had to settle for delaying the opposition, putting up roadblocks in what seemed the inexorable advance of the forces arrayed against those who manufacture, sell, and use cigarettes.

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