Monday, August 08, 2005

FORCES International: Tobacco Industry Front Group?

Since welcoming readers from the FORCES International web site to my blog on July 25, there has been a vigorous response from anti-smoking advocates, who have accused FORCES of simply being a tobacco industry front group. I have been labeled as having fallen for a huge propaganda campaign by which FORCES has somehow disguised its connections with Big Tobacco and its interest in serving as a vehicle to simply promote Big Tobacco's interests in a way that allows the tobacco companies to hide behind the scenes. It is clear to me that the post really shook up many anti-smoking advocates.

Note that I really only made two major statements related to FORCES in that post. First, I welcomed a group of readers to my blog site (which seems perfectly appropriate). Second, I pointed out that in my opinion, FORCES International is not a tobacco industry front group, but rather, a group that opposes tobacco control policies for a number of interests of its own. But that seems to be too much to take for anti-smoking advocates.

For essential background, it appears to be Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) that is the originator of the claim that FORCES is a tobacco industry front group. ANR lists FORCES in its section entitled "Front Groups and Allies," and although ANR admits that "internal tobacco industry documents are inconclusive" about whether FORCES is a tobacco industry-funded organization, ANR states that background information from its document on the National Smokers' Alliance "is still relevant to other smokers' rights groups such as FORCES." Since that National Smokers' Alliance document accused the NSA of being a tobacco industry front group and documented that assertion, it is implied, I believe, that ANR is accusing FORCES of also being a tobacco industry front group.

I now address the basic issue at hand: is FORCES International merely a front for the tobacco industry, established primarily to defend the tobacco industry's interests?

The Rest of the Story

From the information I can gather, it appears that FORCES was established around 1995. There is no evidence I can find that FORCES was created by the tobacco industry. Rather, it seems to be an independent group that the tobacco industry later sought out once it was clear that the group was supporting smokers' rights issues.

In fact, a 1999 Philip Morris memo reveals that FORCES, at that time, did not accept tobacco industry funding. And the nature of that memo makes it clear that Philip Morris was doing investigative work to find out what FORCES was all about - hardly the kind of situation one would expect if Philip Morris had in fact set up FORCES as a front group for itself and the tobacco industry.

While one researcher associated with FORCES (John Luik) has apparently produced articles for and with the tobacco industry, there is no evidence that the organization is funded, to any significant extent, by tobacco companies. The FORCES web site states: "We have no link with the tobacco companies, and we are supported solely by member donations and volunteer work." So the organization itself is making it clear that it is currently not financially supported by the tobacco companies.

Even if it is true, as one anonymous commenter stated in response to my earlier post, that FORCES did receive tobacco industry funding for one ad campaign related to a California ballot initiative, there is simply no evidence at this point that the organization is heavily or significantly funded by the tobacco companies.

Now as to whether FORCES merely exists to promote Big Tobacco's interests:

Well - let's look at what FORCES posted on its web site just last Friday:

"The Master Settlement Agreement is a massively corrupt price-fixing scheme contrived between forty-six states and the major American cigarette manufacturers. As this latest challenge states, upon signing the MSA, 'the States became business partners in establishing one of the most effective and destructive cartels in the history of the Nation.' If there is any justice left in the USA these suits shall prevail. The happiest outcome of all would be total bankruptcy of the major manufacturers to the benefit of fair dealers and the public. We have a bottle of Dom Perignon cooling for the day Philip Morris and the rest bite the dust. Big Tobacco's ignominious demise is a dream that really could come true. ... It's going to take years. That's okay. Smokers and all seekers of justice are watching, and strategizing, and we're ready for the long haul."

This doesn't exactly sound like something that an organization that existed merely to promote the interests of Big Tobacco would state: "The happiest outcome of all would be total bankruptcy of the major manufacturers to the benefit of fair dealers and the public. We have a bottle of Dom Perignon cooling for the day Philip Morris and the rest bite the dust."

If FORCES is a Big Tobacco front group, then it is certainly doing a lousy job. Promoting the bankruptcy and "ignominious demise" of the companies whose interests you are supposed to be representing is not consistent with the concept of serving as a "front" for those companies.

You'd certainly have to get failing marks as a front group if you called for the demise of the company whose interests you are supposed to be "fronting," but to call for its "ignominious" demise would put you off the charts for incompetent "fronting."

So what does this all mean?

What it means is that there are interests that would lead an organization and its members to oppose tobacco control measures other than simply being a group set up primarily by and for the tobacco companies to help them do their bidding in a way that allows the companies to remain hidden behind the scenes.

One of those interests, clearly stated on the FORCES web site, is the principle that: "we do not recognize that the state has the right to legislate on the behavior of citizens when it comes to personal choice and lifestyle, regardless of the reason used to justify such interference."

Could it also be that another interest is the desire not to have to pay ten dollars a pack to purchase cigarettes, when a lot of that money is going to balance your state's budget at your expense?

And could another interest possibly be that you want to preserve the opportunity for smokers to maintain jobs and make a living to support themselves and their families? In an environment where employers are increasingly considering policies to not hire or even fire smokers simply because they choose to smoke off-the-job, is it not possible that some of those who smoke might have a personal (not a tobacco industry-related) interest in opposing such policies?

And might another interest be not wanting the government to tell you that you can't smoke in a parking lot, because it's possible that the smoke could affect the health of people coming into and out of their cars?

Look - I'm not saying that I believe that these interests outweigh the interest in taking measures to protect the public's health (my research supporting the need to protect restaurant and bar workers from secondhand smoke exposure is well-known, although my opinions about raising cigarette taxes to balance state budgets, employer policies that fire or refuse to hire smokers, and certain outdoor smoking bans are also quite clear).

What I am saying is simply that these are legitimate interests that individual smokers might have and which an organization set up to promote the interests of smokers might therefore support. And you don't need to be representing the tobacco companies to have a personal interest in keeping the government from regulating your behavior, raising your taxes, or failing to protect you from being fired for your off-the-job behavior.

And until anti-smoking organizations and advocates recognize the existence of these interests, I'm afraid that unjustified personal attacks as well as misleading or inaccurate accusations about organizations are going to continue.

Am I saying that anti-smoking groups should never accuse an organization of being a front for Big Tobacco? NO - I'm just saying that they shouldn't accuse an organization of being a front for Big Tobacco unless it IS a front for Big Tobacco. And there needs to be documentation to support such an accusation, not just mere speculation.

The rest of the story reveals that contrary to claims made by ANR and what seems to be a general assumption among many anti-smoking advocates, FORCES International is not a Big Tobacco front group, but instead, is an organization that represents the interests of smokers who generally believe that the government should not regulate their behavior.

The group is not primarily representing the interests of Philip Morris and other tobacco companies, but rather, is promoting the interests of a group of smokers who have increasingly begun to feel stigmatized, intruded upon, and perhaps even persecuted by their government.

They are acting primarily out of concern for their own interests and not out of concern for the interests of Big Tobacco. In fact, they would love nothing other than for Big Tobacco to go by the wayside so that the government-Big Tobacco cartel's price-fixing scheme can end and real competition can force prices to drop substantially in the marketplace.

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