Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Challenging Dogma (Post #4): All Groups that Oppose Tobacco Control Policies are Big Tobacco Front Groups

One of the things that I was "taught" during my experience as a tobacco control advocate was that all opposition to tobacco control policies originates, ultimately, from the tobacco industry. Therefore, any group that opposes tobacco control policies is most probably a tobacco industry front group. Through my years of working with Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR), I was led to believe that organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, FORCES, and the Heartland Institute (all are currently listed on ANR's web site as front groups/allies) were merely fronts for the tobacco industry.

Interestingly, my experience accords with Michael McFadden's observation that many anti-smoking advocates "are quick to put the label of 'Big Tobacco Front or Ally' upon any group or individual who opposes the notion of the deadliness of secondary smoke or any who question the funding or motivation of Crusading groups."

The ANR web site explains what it means by a front group as follows:

"Tobacco companies are the engineers behind the scenes keeping the trains running on time for the opposition in your town. The problem for Big Tobacco is that it has no credibility with the public. So tobacco companies have developed a system of front groups and allies to allow them to stay in the shadows and have others carry their message publicly. The industry then arms these front groups with strategies and tactics to spoil smokefree air campaigns."

ANR also explains that:

"It has been a common practice of Big Tobacco to use third parties or to create front groups 'to be out in front fighting' smokefree policies, while the industry remains behind the scenes, protecting its public image."

I think there are essentially 3 major criteria that define a tobacco industry front group in the way that ANR and other anti-smoking groups and advocates use the term. These criteria stem from the central principle that the intended purpose of the front group is, by definition, to create or sustain a group that is perceived as an independent party that is expressing its own views, when in fact, it is really just serving as a vehicle for the industry to promote its own interests, but in a way that allows the industry to remain behind the scenes.

1. The group is created by and/or primarily funded by the tobacco industry.

2. The group hides the fact of its establishment by, or heavy funding from, the tobacco industry.

3. The group promotes the interests of the tobacco industry rather than any true independent interests of its own and of its members.

To see how this works and how these criteria can be used to assess whether a group is indeed a front group, let me present two examples of what I consider to be "real" front groups.

1. THE BEVERLY HILLS RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION (BHRA) -- It appears that in 1987, with a smoke-free restaurant ordinance being considered in Beverly Hills, the tobacco industry established and supported an organization (BHRA) to have the appearance of being an independent association of restaurateurs who were concerned about their business, but that in fact was simply a front group to allow the industry to fight the ordinance without having to identify itself.

The association was non-existent before the ordinance was proposed and was set up primarily, if not solely, to lobby against the ordinance. It was organized by the tobacco industry, rather than an independent effort of concerned restaurateurs. The tobacco industry basically ran the show.

Barry Fogel, president of the BHRA at the time, later revealed the truth behind the organization, while testifying in support of New York City's smoke-free ordinance: "
There was no Beverly Hills Restaurant Association before the smokefree ordinance. We were organized by the tobacco industry. The industry helped pay our legal bills in a suit against Beverly Hills. The industry even flew some of our members by Learjet to Rancho Mirage, another California city considering smokefree restaurant legislation, to testify before their City Council against a similar smokefree ordinance. Tobacco Institute representatives attended some of our meetings."

Here, all 3 criteria are met. The front group in question was established by and was primarily funded by the tobacco industry. The group apparently did hide its true affiliation. And it is pretty clear that the group was established almost solely to promote the tobacco industry's interest of fighting smoke-free ordinances in Beverly Hills and elsewhere in California.

2. THE CITIZENS' COMMISSION TO PROTECT THE TRUTH -- The Citizens' Commission, on the surface, appears to be an independent group that seeks to promote funding for the American Legacy Foundation's "truth" anti-smoking campaign. It has filed amicus briefs in a number of lawsuits, seeking to promote the Legacy Foundation's interests. For example, it filed a brief in the DOJ case, requesting that any funding resulting from a remedy involving an anti-smoking media campaign be awarded to Legacy. It also filed a brief defending Legacy in a lawsuit brought by Lorillard charging Legacy with violating the anti-vilification clause of the Master Settlement Agreement.

However, the truth is that the Citizens' Commission is primarily funded by the American Legacy Foundation. It failed to disclose this in the DOJ amicus brief, and while it did disclose it in the Lorillard case, it downplayed the significance of this fact and it still denied that it had any affiliation with Legacy.

Here, all 3 criteria are met. The front group in question is funded primarily by the American Legacy Foundation. It has taken great steps to hide and even deny its affiliation with Legacy, failing to disclose this relationship or downplaying it before federal judges. And it exists pretty much exclusively to promote the interests of the American Legacy Foundation: namely, to secure funding to continue the "truth" anti-smoking campaign.

The Rest of the Story

Now let's look at 3 of the organizations that ANR lists as being tobacco industry front groups: FORCES, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and the Cato Institute.

It is quite clear that none of these organizations was established by the tobacco industry.

It is also quite clear that while at least two of these groups have received contributions from the tobacco companies, the industry is not the primary source of their funding.

It does not appear to be the case that the Cato Institute is hiding its tobacco funding, since this information is readily
displayed on its web site. That CEI has received tobacco funding also seems to be well-known.

It is also clear that while these groups have tended to take positions that align with those of the tobacco industry, the groups are not merely working to promote the industry's interests, but they are in fact promoting their own interests, which tend to center around the idea of limited government intrusion into the private behavior of citizens and/or the preservation of free enterprise and limited government.

So none of the 3 criteria are clearly met for any of these organizations. They were not established by the tobacco industry and are not funded primarily by the industry. The organizations for which tobacco funding is clear do not appear to be hiding that information. And these groups are all clearly promoting a range of interests that extend far beyond simply protecting the tobacco industry's profits. In fact, they have taken a position that is directly counter to Big Tobacco's interests and which could result in major economic harm to the major tobacco companies.

The truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that it is simply not the case that any organization that opposes tobacco control policies is a tobacco industry front group. And it is simply not the case that a number of the organizations listed by ANR as being tobacco industry front groups actually are.

The rest of the story suggests that the dogma that has led many anti-smoking organizations and advocates to assume that any organization which opposes tobacco control policies must be a tobacco industry front group is wrong. While there might not be any damage done if groups and advocates simply made this false assumption, they are doing more than that. They are actually, in my view, falsely accusing these organizations of being front groups.

That's wrong, and I hope that it changes. You can monitor the ANR front group list here to see if it changes.

Most importantly, I hope that tobacco control practitioners will begin to understand that there are non-tobacco-industry-related interests that would motivate an individual to oppose tobacco control policies. We need to have respect for individuals we find are fighting on the other side of issues, and to discontinue the knee-jerk reaction of attacking them as being affiliated with the tobacco industry. We also need to respect the fact that there is another way of looking at things, even though we may vigorously disagree. Respect for, and fair treatment of individuals must come ahead of any institutional goals.

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