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Bid to Dilute Anti-Smoking Effort Revealed

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tobacco industry executives planned in 1990 to secretly undermine California’s anti-tobacco campaign by manipulating an unlikely coalition of friendly legislators, the California Medical Assn. and advocates for the poor, a newly released internal industry memo shows.

The document, which the Washington-based Tobacco Institute’s staffers prepared for its executive council, provides a firsthand glimpse into the industry’s alarm about the potential impact of California’s anti-tobacco advertisements--hard-hitting TV spots that were the first of their kind and drew widespread attention.

While it is not clear that executives actually carried out the planned operation, the memo was prophetic in its description of what later took place in Sacramento.

For two years running in the middle 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson and lawmakers approved bills that diverted more than $100 million from anti-tobacco efforts, spending the money on health care programs, instead, and thereby blunting California’s anti-smoking campaign.

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The anti-smoking effort is funded by the 25-cent-per-pack tax imposed by Proposition 99, which voters approved in 1988. The early ads--a centerpiece of the campaign and the focus of the memo--portrayed industry executives sitting in a conference room talking about finding new smokers to replace old ones who were dying off.

The four-page Tobacco Institute memo, first disclosed by the Washington Post, lays out a covert strategy to kill the ads, which the organization labeled an “attack approach” against tobacco.

Recommending against “an overt industry legislative lobbying campaign,” the memo instead suggests that the industry accomplish its goals more quietly through other groups that opposed the ads for different reasons.

Specifically, the memo advises that the industry subtly mold groups that have “negative feelings about the campaign into a focused coalition willing to take the lead in an effort to end funding for media from Prop. 99 taxes and redirect it elsewhere.”

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Whether because of the industry’s plan or as a result of some otherwise unexplained coincidence, just such a coalition did arise to support diversion of Proposition 99 funds.

Tobacco Institute spokesman Tom Lauria said Tuesday that he had “no idea” whether officials followed through on their plan. But he defended the approach laid out in 1990, saying: “It is normal for every trade association to build coalitions with like-minded groups. It’s an everyday administrative function.”

Stanton Glantz, a professor at the UC San Francisco medical school and a leader in the anti-tobacco movement, said the memo provides proof for what he and others long suspected, that the tobacco industry was involved in the effort to divert Proposition 99 money.

“It’s the whole political history before it happened,” Glantz said. “It showed a real sophistication.”

The memo was written April 18, 1990, in the last year of Gov. George Deukmejian’s administration, as the state was airing its first ad funded by the tobacco tax.

It noted that Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, state health director, would not pull or modify the ads. Moreover, the memo said, the “lame duck” governor was unlikely to get into a “public sparring match” with Kizer.

Instead, the memo said, the tobacco industry should encourage lawmakers to intervene and should cooperate with minority, business and other groups in developing their opposition to the advertising program.

In an interview Tuesday, Kizer, now undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, affirmed one point in the memo--that Deukmejian never attempted to block the ads. But the doctor said the attitude changed when Wilson took over in 1991.

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“There were some comments from . . . [Wilson’s] office that they were unhappy and would like to see any subsequent ads toned down, and wanted to review any of them,” Kizer said.

In 1994 and again in 1995, Wilson and the Legislature agreed to shift $121 million away from the anti-smoking effort toward health care.

While the state never specifically cut funds for the advertisements, there was an 18-month period in 1995 and 1996 when no new spots were produced. During that time, older and softer ads were aired. At the same time, smoking, which had been dropping steadily for a decade, began once again to rise sharply among adults and teenagers in California.

In the middle 1990s, with state money scarce, many groups considered educational efforts targeting tobacco a lower priority than other health care needs. Among them were the California Medical Assn. and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Those organizations--and nine others--are mentioned in the memo.

Lobbyist Lucy Quacinella of the Western Center, an advocacy group for the poor, scoffed at the suggestion that tobacco executives might have manipulated the organization in pursuit of a certain goal.

“This notion that we are so witless that we would allow ourselves to be used is really offensive,” she said.

The California Medical Assn., which initially supported the diversion of Proposition 99 money, has since retreated from that stand and joined other health groups in pushing for continued funding of the anti-tobacco campaign.

Medical association lobbyist Steven Thompson said there “was no question the [tobacco] industry was trying to eliminate the ads, because they had a real impact on cigarette consumption.

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“I could see their strategy playing out in the Legislature,” said Thompson, who worked for the Assembly Office of Research at the time. “But in my opinion it was a flop, because those award-winning ads have been the most singularly effective piece of the anti-smoking program.”

Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh called it “laughable” to suggest that tobacco interests influenced the governor’s decision to shift money from the anti-smoking campaign.


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