Women, Blacks Courted : Big Tobacco Buying New Friendships
The tobacco industry is forging new, behind-the-scenes relationships in its effort to fight smoking bans and excise taxes and polish its image.
The $35-billion-a-year industry has aligned itself with organized labor and black, Latino and women’s groups, whose civil rights rhetoric and appeals for social justice have a special resonance in American life.
Cash and public relations know-how are being lavished on these allies. Tobacco money may buy anything from scholarships and entertainment to printing and legal services. Meanwhile, the cigarette makers often stay behind the lines.
Take the case of a slickly produced guidebook telling workers how smoking restrictions can be “a smoke screen” to avoid safety improvements and duck liability for industrial disease.
“Remember, although he may say he only has the workers’ best interests at heart, when he’s talking about smoking policies, a boss is still a boss,” the booklet warns. It bears the seals of five big unions, including the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. But the seal of the group that bankrolled the guide--the Tobacco Institute, the industry’s lobbying group--isn’t there.
A brochure for the public bearing only the name of the American Agriculture Movement attacks excise taxes on cigarettes, fuel and other goods as unfair to small farmers. The tobacco industry co-authored and printed it.
In 1986, when Congress considered banning discount sale of cigarettes in military commissaries, the American Logistics Assn. issued a study on how the move would rob military personnel of part of their benefits. Few, if any, readers could have known the author was a tobacco-industry consultant.
Killing With Kindness
In the days when states and city councils left tobacco pretty much alone and senior Southern pols repulsed the few attacks in Congress, such creative liaisons weren’t needed. Today, the industry must try killing foes with kindness--as it has, for example, by showering money on fire-prevention groups to blur cigarettes’ status as the leading cause of fatal fires.
“The ‘all-powerful tobacco lobby’ is better characterized as the very wealthy tobacco lobby,” Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), said in an interview. “It’s powerful and it pays its way, but it is a different kind of operation than it was 15, 20 years ago . . . because tobacco’s got more problems in this town than it ever had before.”
To meet the threat, individual companies--particularly industry leader Philip Morris (Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, Virginia Slims, Merit) and No. 2 RJR Nabisco (Winston, Salem, Camel, Vantage)--supplement the lobbying of the Tobacco Institute, which represents five of the six leading cigarette makers and several smaller tobacco firms.
Founded in 1958, the institute has a staff of 100 in Washington and several regional offices. Its budget topped $29 million in 1986, according to disclosure forms obtained from the Internal Revenue Service under the Freedom of Information Act.
The institute churns out brochures, reports and videos; lobbies Congress and state legislatures; and sends industry-paid experts--in what it calls “truth squads"--on cross-country media tours to deny the risks of secondhand smoke.
These days, the big push is for “coalition-building.” This often involves financial help to groups whose pro-industry stands are cited as evidence of independent support.
Rankles Industry Foes
Brennan Moran, media relations director for the institute, said the strategy rankles only those who have it in for the industry.
“I don’t think there is anything sinister,” she said. “It becomes an issue only if you want to look at the tobacco industry as . . . one that shouldn’t help groups promote a message that coincides with ours.”
The outreach to labor has been a triumph, according to a Tobacco Institute memo, one of many internal documents obtained from well-placed sources for this article. The memo describes a Florida meeting of AFL-CIO leaders in February, 1987. It says: “When we attended our first AFL-CIO midwinter meeting three years ago, we found a majority of labor leaders and their staffs openly hostile to the industry. . . . Our reception earlier this week, at our third meeting, could not have been friendlier.”
The glue for this alliance has been the Tobacco Industry Labor-Management Committee, founded in 1984 and financed by the Tobacco Institute. Of the five unions on the committee, only the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union has a big stake in tobacco, with 17,000 tobacco workers among 135,000 members. The other four unions--the machinists, sheet metal workers, carpenters and firemen and oilers--together have less than 0.5% of their members in the industry, according to figures supplied by the unions.
The workplace-smoking guide, which ascribes ulterior motives to the imposition of smoking rules, was a project of the committee.
In recent years it also has given Citizens for Tax Justice about $3,000 a month, which constitutes nearly 15% of that group’s budget. Citizens for Tax Justice is a prominent labor-backed organization that favors higher income taxes on business and the wealthy. It opposes excise taxes on various goods as unfair to workers and the poor. State and federal cigarette excise taxes--sales taxes that usually account for one-third the price of a pack of cigarettes--are also opposed by the industry because they lower cigarette sales.
“It falls in the category of ‘politics makes strange bedfellows,’ ” said David Wilhelm, former executive director of Citizens for Tax Justice. According to Wilhelm, if tobacco companies “want to join us in talking about the regressivity” of excise taxes, “I think we’d be crazy” to spurn their help.
In a strikingly original move, the industry has secretly combined a jobs program for its labor allies with its campaign to deflect attention from the problem of secondhand smoke. Using Tobacco Institute funds, the National Energy Management Institute, a joint venture of sheet-metal contractors and workers, is training workers to detect indoor pollutants, other than tobacco smoke, and to prescribe ventilation improvements--which naturally would be installed by sheet-metal workers. The Tobacco Institute refused to comment, but a spokesman for NEMI said the industry is providing about $100,000.
This gambit figured in the industry’s attempt in November to upstage the “Great American Smoke-out,” the American Cancer Society’s annual appeal to smokers to quit for a day. In its expensively advertised counter-event, the “Great American Challenge,” the industry offered to send “a certified union ventilation contractor” to any cancer society office to check for “viruses, fungal spores, bacteria, gases, closed fresh air ducts, and ventilation systems in need of maintenance.”
The certified union contractors were identified in an internal memo, but not in the newspaper ads, as “any member of our ally, the National Energy Management Institute.”
If the cancer society did accept the challenge, the memo reasoned, “it is likely that the contractors (would) find problems with ventilation and air quality--particularly given the fact that nonprofit agencies generally rent offices in inexpensive and under-maintained buildings.” However, no cancer society office responded to the offer.
Such strategies sometimes backfire. In September, full-page ads in New York newspapers attacked a proposed smoking ban on commuter rail lines in the name of a transportation union. The $85,000 campaign was paid for by Philip Morris, whose name did not appear in the ads. The ploy was denounced by Advertising Age and Newsday, which blasted the “tobacco company’s duplicitous campaign.”
Also in September, 14 unions bought ads against proposed excise taxes in liberal and leftist journals. The Progressive, a magazine that ran the ad, blistered it on a separate page for failing to disclose that the money came from the Tobacco Institute.
Ray Scannell, a tobacco workers union official, defended the industry’s behind-the-scenes role.
“Generally, the people who are flaying us over it are . . . people who have a grudge against the tobacco industry,” Scannell said. Whenever you suggest that tobacco companies are “not equivalent to the oven tenders at Auschwitz, you get vilified.”
The ads condemned excise taxes as regressive. According to Scannell, they pushed “the line that the labor movement has always pushed. . . . So who’s using who?”
“If it’s not dirty money, why are they so far in the background?” asked Matthew Myers, staff director of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, an anti-smoking group.
‘Entitled to Know’
“There’s no message that can be totally separated from the speaker,” Myers said. “That’s why we’re entitled to know who the speaker is.”
With the battleground shifting increasingly to the states, the industry has opened its purse to organizations of state legislators. In 1987, tobacco contributions to four of these associations exceeded $250,000, an amount that does not include tens of thousands of dollars worth of in-kind support, such as free legal work and golf and tennis tournaments at annual meetings.
The National Black Caucus of State Legislators, which represents about 400 black state lawmakers, last year got more than $60,000 in donations from Philip Morris, RJR and the Tobacco Institute. The institute also helped to revamp the group’s computer system. Serving last year as general counsel to the caucus was Ron White, local counsel for the Tobacco Institute in Philadelphia. White said he avoided conflicts by not advising the caucus on tobacco issues.
David Richardson, a Pennsylvania lawmaker and current president of the National Black Caucus, said tobacco contributors want a chance to plead their case, “just like all the companies that we . . . have associations with.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council, an alliance of 1,700 conservative state lawmakers, gets about $50,000 a year from the tobacco industry. It also sponsors golf and tennis events and pays the council’s bills at Covington & Burling, the industry’s Washington law firm.
A recent annual symposium on indoor air pollution was funded by the industry and dominated by its paid experts. But Constance Heckman, executive director of the Exchange Council, sees little chance of conflict.
“We are conservative; we are pro-business,” she said. Of tobacco companies: “They don’t change us. They just compound our effectiveness on the issues that we agree on.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures and its affiliate foundation, which last year got at least $65,000 in tobacco support, saw industry lobbyists come unglued over a study on hospital cost containment that the organization published in 1985.
Two former staff members said conference officials caved in to industry pressure to delete from drafts of the study statements about the health-care costs of smoking. “Money spoke to the people who ran the organization,” said Nancy Shanks, a former employee who worked on the study.
Officials of the organization contend, however, that they did not accede to industry pressure. Because they could not supply working drafts, there was no way to compare these with the final study, which does contain brief references to smoking as a health problem.
Philip Morris and the Tobacco Institute recently helped fund a National Conference of State Legislatures report generally critical of “earmarking,” the practice of dedicating tax revenue to health care or other needs. Earmarking builds political support for new taxes and so is zealously opposed by the tobacco industry.
‘Tobacco Industry Knew’
The industry helped because “I assume that they thought the report would be useful,” said the conference’s Steven D. Gold, a principal author. “The people from the tobacco industry knew what economists in general would say about earmarking, and I’m an economist.”
The Council of State Governments, which gets at least $75,000 a year in tobacco contributions, made do with less in 1986 when it was punished by the industry for a conference in Boston on indoor pollution. Industry-paid consultants served as panelists, but tobacco lobbyists still complained the program was stacked against them. So they withheld their usual donations to the council’s eastern regional meeting, according to industry sources and council officials.
Tobacco money, long a mainstay of some black groups and institutions, now is flowing to Latino and women’s groups, raising total industry gifts to minority and feminist causes to more than $4.5 million last year.
Leading the way were Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco, which account for nearly 71% of U.S. cigarette sales. Both companies have diversified into food and other products, but cigarettes still earn the lion’s share of the profits.
Philip Morris, known for its lavish support for the arts, gave more than $2.4 million in 1987 to more than 180 black, Latino and women’s groups and local chapters, according to Tom Ricke, chief spokesman for the company. This excludes gifts from the company’s General Foods subsidiary, which are distributed by a separate foundation.
RJR Nabisco gave $1.9 million to 49 minority and women’s groups and institutions in 1987. The total does not include gifts from local operations, company officials said.
In a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. birthday speech in Atlanta to black college presidents on Jan. 18, RJR Nabisco President F. Ross Johnson discussed the image-enhancing role of corporate contributions.
“Anyone can make a profit in the short term,” Johnson said. “But we are thinking about profits 10 years from now as well, and good citizenship is just as important an investment as research and development.”
To critics, the industry is simply buying innocence by association. They say cigarette marketing is enhanced by the link with minority and women leaders, examples of mobility and success that are staples of cigarette advertising.
The industry’s generosity is of special concern to health organizations because women and members of minority groups have been slower than white males to kick the habit. Cigarette billboards seem ubiquitous in some minority neighborhoods, and Philip Morris has become the single biggest advertiser in Latino media, according to a survey by Hispanic Business magazine.
According to recent estimates, lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cancer killer of women. A higher percentage of blacks smoke than whites, and blacks die at a higher rate from lung cancer and coronary heart disease, both smoking-related.
In 1987, tobacco companies gave at least $350,000 to the black, Latino and women’s congressional caucuses or their affiliate foundations, mostly for fellowships, dinners and social events.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation got more than $175,000, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute more than $65,000 and the Women’s Research and Education Institute, an affiliate of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, more than $100,000.
“I simply think it’s part of their way to make themselves look better,” said Alison Dineen, fellowship director for the Women’s Research and Education Institute. “They know that they’re perceived negatively by representatives who are concerned with health issues. . . .
“To tell you the truth, I’m not that interested. I’m just glad they fund us.”
The National Women’s Political Caucus got $130,000 last year from RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris, according to officials of the companies. Tobacco gifts account for 10% to 15% of the group’s budget, caucus chair Irene Natividad recently told the Boston Globe. A national directory of women elected officials was produced last year by Philip Morris, which has compiled similar directories for black and Latino groups.
No Immediate Return
Like many other beneficiaries, the women’s caucus rarely adopts positions on smoking or other issues, so the industry gets no immediate pay-back. But as members ascend the political ladder, they are good people for a besieged industry to know. Victoria Leonard, who heads the National Women’s Health Network, called the gifts “an investment in people” who may be “more willing to listen to a tobacco lobbyist five years down the pike.” Her organization does not take tobacco money.
Tobacco support for Latinos has increased with their numbers and buying power. Philip Morris has sponsored leadership training programs for Latino women in New York and last year gave $150,000 to the U.S. Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. Tobacco money also goes to the National Council of La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Hispanic Scholarship Foundation and the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists.
“Philip Morris gave us money and hasn’t asked for any special consideration,” said Frank Newton, executive director of the Latino journalists’ group. “I’m less concerned about taking money from Philip Morris . . . than the fact that a lot of these big media companies don’t give a dime.”
Tobacco firms have been among the few steady national advertisers in black newspapers and magazines, and the industry has courted the black press in other ways as well. In 1985, Philip Morris brought dozens of black publishers to New York for a two-day meeting that was addressed by Hugh Cullman, then vice chairman of the firm. According to a published account, Cullman told the black publishers:
“Today, tolerance for my smoking may be under attack. Tomorrow, it may be tolerance for someone else’s right to pray or choose a place to live. So the real issue isn’t smoking versus non-smoking--it’s discrimination versus tolerance.”
RJR Nabisco funds journalism scholarships through the National Newspaper Publishers Assn., a black publishers group that named RJR its 1985 advertiser of the year. When the first Black Journalism Hall of Fame induction ceremony was held in Baltimore in the fall, the keynote speaker was Stanley Scott, a vice president of Philip Morris.
A favorite tobacco charity is the United Negro College Fund, which last year got $267,000 from RJR Nabisco, $32,000 from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and $120,000 from Philip Morris. The chairman of the college fund is Cullman, the recently retired vice chairman of Philip Morris.
Cigarette companies gave more than $400,000 in 1987 to the National Urban League, which has honored Philip Morris chairmen at its annual Equal Opportunity Day dinners. Former Urban League President Vernon E. Jordan Jr. is on the board of directors of RJR Nabisco. Margaret B. Young, widow of former Urban League chief Whitney Young, is on the Philip Morris board.
In taking tobacco money, the Urban League is not contributing to “what is perceived as the negative impact of cigarettes on the minority community,” said Clarence Wood, the league’s vice president for external affairs. “We have not seen it as any attempt to hold us prisoner or buy us off.”
Brown & Williamson, the No. 3 cigarette maker, honors five inner-city leaders a year with “Kool Achiever Awards,” named for the B&W; brand that is a leading seller among blacks. The company donates $50,000 to nonprofit, inner-city services designated by the honorees.
Groups Are Grateful
The industry has won gratitude from recipient groups, which are quick to point out that their support comes from an array of industries.
To critics, tobacco gifts help legitimize a business whose products, according to the U.S. surgeon general, cause about 1,000 premature deaths a day. “They’re avoiding the image of death peddlers and instead are becoming the champion of the downtrodden,” said Anne Marie O’Keefe of the Washington-based Advocacy Institute.
As critics see it, minority groups generally have avoided the smoking issue, and the industry wants to keep it that way. Unable to address every worthwhile cause, the groups naturally will be leery of one that carries financial risk.
“It’s preventive medicine from their standpoint,” said Dr. Alan Blum, a co-founder of Doctors Ought to Care, a health-advocacy group.
Some beneficiaries are uneasy. Black groups are being “co-opted,” said Paul Ruffins, editor of the Congressional Black Caucus quarterly magazine and a former advertising man. “As a propagandist, I can see what’s happening. Black and poor people are being used in propaganda wars that have nothing to do with them.”
Pummeling Would Be Worse
Tobacco officials say the pummeling would be worse--and more deserved--if they failed to share their wealth.
“If we gave $1 million to Mother Teresa, they’d find something wrong with it,” bristled Tom Ricke, the Philip Morris spokesman. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Attacks on tobacco support for blacks go back to the 1950s, when the critics were white racists. According to the companies, the record shows they backed minorities before it was fashionable and before smoking came under siege.
In the 1950s, for example, white supremacists called for a boycott of Philip Morris brands. According to the White Sentinel, a supremacist monthly:
“Philip Morris Inc. has the worst race-mixing record of any large company in the nation. Its president, Joseph F. Cullman, is a member of the board of directors of the National Urban League. . . . Philip Morris was first in the tobacco industry to hire Negroes instead of Whites for executive and sales positions. . . . Philip Morris was the first cigarette company to advertise in the Negro press.”
Worse still, the White Sentinel reported, Philip Morris helped produce a travel guide for blacks, a “vicious booklet” explaining the public accommodation laws of each state.
Suspicious of Motives
Contemporary foes remain suspicious of the industry’s motives. “The cigarette industry has known for more than 30 years that they were selling a lethal product and walking on a political time bomb,” said Myers of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health. Thus, they long ago “began to cultivate non-traditional allies.”
Have these friendships really helped the cigarette makers? Despite their efforts, the smoking habit, once widely accepted and even admired, seems increasingly to be seen as a sign of weakness and disregard for others. Coalitions can’t reverse smoking’s falling social status.
But allies are crucial in the legislative wars in which the industry, contrary to outward appearances, still wins far more often than it loses.
According to the Tobacco Institute, of 468 bills that proposed smoking or advertising restrictions, higher cigarette taxes and the like before state legislatures in 1986, only 54, or 12%, passed. In 1987, 62, or 14%, of 436 adverse bills were approved.
Tobacco has had more success in Congress, which failed to adopt any of 160 anti-cigarette bills in 1985-86, according to the institute. A big setback occurred last year when Congress banned smoking on airline flights of two hours or less. But so far, that is tobacco’s only loss out of 99 bills before the 100th Congress.
Specter of Discrimination
Last year, when the New York City Council took up a tough indoor-smoking ordinance, a coalition of minority leaders raised the specter of discrimination, arguing that clerical workers, who are disproportionately in minority groups, would be affected most. Opponents, who ultimately failed to stop the rules, included members of the NAACP, the National Black Police Assn. and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, all recipients of tobacco contributions.
A black magazine recently contended that blacks have a moral duty to stand up for the industry. The National Black Monitor, a monthly magazine that appears as an insert in 80 black newspapers, in January began a three-part series on the tobacco industry with a call for blacks to “oppose any proposed legislation that often serves as a vehicle for intensified discrimination against this industry which has befriended us, often far more than any other, in our hour of greatest need.”
In the February installment of the series, the Monitor argued that racial minorities no longer face the “systematized injustice they once did. But relentless discrimination still rages unabashedly on a cross-country scope against another group of targets--the tobacco industry and 50 million private citizens who smoke.”
The authors of those sentiments were industry officials themselves. In neither issue did the tobacco-related story carry a byline. But an RJR Nabisco official said the company wrote the February piece.
In 1986, leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens approved a resolution opposing workplace smoking rules that “restrict the personal freedoms of Hispanic employees in the workplace.”
Resolution’s Use Urged
The Tobacco Institute, in a memo to field staff, urged use of the resolution to rally “LULAC chapters and . . . Hispanic Chambers of Commerce in states and localities considering workplace smoking restrictions.”
And there was good news for the industry from the women’s movement, according to an institute memo in August, 1986:
“We began intensive discussions with representatives of key women’s organizations,” the memo said. “Most have assured us that, for the time being, smoking is not a priority issue for them.”
Staff writer Myron Levin studied the tobacco industry under an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship.