Behind Fuming Bar Owners Is Savvy, Well-Heeled Group
From all appearances, the reaction against California’s month-old bar smoking ban has been widespread, strong and spontaneous.
From Eureka to El Centro, tavern owners complain of lost business. Patrons fume about the law and defy it. Demonstrations spring up across the state. Local news outlets dutifully report on the flouting of the first state ban on smoking in bars, nightclubs and casinos.
But although the owners’ complaints are real, behind them is a highly sophisticated public relations campaign, much of it orchestrated by a nonprofit, tax-exempt, tobacco industry-backed group based in Virginia and called the National Smokers’ Alliance.
Assisting that group is one of the world’s largest public relations firms, Burson-Marsteller. The company has a long-standing account with the tobacco industry and is renowned for its ability to generate news coverage.
As the organizers tell it, they’re merely tapping the grass roots of the body politic, giving a voice to everyday people. Opponents deride the campaign as “Astroturf.”
No matter how the drive to repeal the ban is characterized, the effort won a big victory, albeit in an early round, when the Assembly approved a bill Wednesday night that would rescind the prohibition and permit smoking in bars and casinos at least until 2001.
That legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood), now moves to the state Senate, where a similar measure stalled last year. Incoming Senate President Pro Tem John Burton suggested Thursday that this year the Senate will give the matter another hearing.
With the bill moving through the Legislature, the campaign by the National Smokers’ Alliance and others is expected to intensify.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said the alliance’s Gary Auxier. “Either they’re with you or they’re not. We’re not holding a gun to people and saying, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ ”
Indeed, the alliance is not making up the reaction or forcing anyone to join its campaign. But when bar owners need help setting up a meeting, figuring out which lawmakers to call or getting their message to the public, the group stands ready--with pockets far deeper than those of small merchants.
“We would do it without them,” said Dave Berryhill, owner of the Bac Street Lounge in Redondo Beach. “We would find a way to make it happen.”
But Berryhill, noting that he talks to alliance people on “a frequent basis,” called them very useful.
“It makes it easier to help mobilize,” he said.
Increasingly, no major legislative battle is complete without a so-called grass-roots element, especially when the stakes are high.
The bar smoking ban has generated one such battle; it strikes hard at the tobacco industry. Until the prohibition went into effect Jan. 1, bars, nightclubs and casinos were virtually the only business establishments left in California where smokers could light up legally.
They are “one place that the tobacco industry doesn’t want to lose,” said Dian Kiser of the group Breath, which has a state contract to help implement the ban. “This is one of their central promotional areas.”
If done correctly, a smooth grass-roots campaign gives an issue a human face in a way that Capitol lobbyists, with their polished arguments, cannot.
In the eyes of those who mount such campaigns, part of their beauty is that they take place largely outside public view. Requirements for public disclosure are few. Unlike those doing traditional lobbying, organizers of grass-roots campaigns aren’t obligated to publicly report how much they spend or how they spend it.
Proponents of the smoking ban have tried to mount their own grass-roots counterattack to prop up support. Breath has taken out at least one newspaper ad listing bars that support the new law. Other anti-smoking groups encourage backers to write to lawmakers and testify in Sacramento.
Kiser says that despite the protests against the ban, compliance is surprisingly high in the state’s 36,000 bars. As many as 90% of California’s bar-restaurants are obeying the law, she believes. Perhaps 70% of stand-alone bars are trying to enforce the ban.
“We’re into this law 28 days, and this is just the beginning,” Kiser said. “We know there’s a lot of compliance.”
So far, however, with the Smokers’ Alliance on their side, the foes bring far more firepower to the PR war. And if Wednesday’s Assembly vote is any indication, they may be winning.
The alliance is the creation of public relations specialists well-schooled in the art of such campaigns. Auxier and the group’s president, William Humber, came from Burson. Both handled tobacco company accounts there and earlier worked for politicians in Washington and Kentucky, Auxier said.
As a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, the alliance must file its tax statements publicly with the California attorney general. In those documents, the group reports receiving $42 million between its founding in 1993 and 1996.
Payments to Burson-Marsteller, only one of its public relations firms, exceed $4.4 million for those years, with about a fourth of that being spent on California operations. The filings also show that Humber had a salary of $450,000 in 1996.
The organization is not required to publicly disclose how much money it gets from its donors, and it doesn’t do so. But Auxier said contributors include three major tobacco companies--Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard.
“We’d like to get more from each of them. After all, we are representing their customers,” Auxier said.
Tobacco companies are traditionally major donors to politicians. Such contributions in California last year, however, were minor, primarily because of the curbs on donations to individuals imposed by voter-approved Proposition 208, which a federal judge overturned this month.
But the tobacco industry remains a major lobbying force in Sacramento, spending more than $1 million a year in an effort to sway lawmakers.
For the most part, however, the Smokers’ Alliance has not directly buttonholed lawmakers in Sacramento.
“We prefer to get involved with businesses and work that way,” Auxier said. “It is more effective from our viewpoint.”
To that end, the alliance is using a combination of direct mail, telemarketing and public relations specialists, as well as a slick World Wide Web site.
On the computer site and in news releases, the group compiles news articles detailing complaints about the bar smoking ban. It also distributes a newsletter, the Resistance, which likens the ban to Prohibition.
The alliance distributes posters to hang on bar walls denouncing the ban, and coasters that tavern owners can put out for patrons. The coasters have spaces where customers can fill in their names and addresses, and are forwarded to lawmakers. “I’m a constituent, not a criminal,” the coasters declare.
Philip Morris, U.S.A., the world’s largest cigarette maker, has also joined the effort, sending letters to customers decrying the ban as “a prime example of the California Legislature’s unwarranted attempts to legislate the choices adults should be able to make about their own lives.”
The letters, dated Jan. 26, urge customers to write to their lawmakers. They also provide them with the names and addresses of legislators, plus preprinted postcards and postage-paid envelopes.
This week, 200 bar owners gathered on the covered patio of the Stoney Inn, a Sacramento tavern. As they filled the patio with smoke, they railed against the toll the ban is taking on their businesses. Local newspaper and television reporters looked on; bar owners passed out petitions and placards, some of which were supplied by the Smokers’ Alliance.
Jim Keenan, owner of the Nite Hawk bar in Sacramento, helped organize the meeting. He said he has turned several times to a local contact for the alliance--a Burson-Marsteller public relations specialist working on the alliance’s account. Keenan said the contact has helped him figure out which lawmakers to call or visit.
Burson-Marsteller executives declined to be interviewed for this article.
The alliance is “the only group on our side. We don’t have any lobbyists,” Keenan said. Perhaps most important, he added, the group gives him encouragement, telling him: “ ‘You guys aren’t alone. You people have rights.’ That’s good to know. We need to know we’re not alone.”
* SMOKE: The next state Senate leader will hear arguments for lifting ban on smoking in bars, but says bill will face tough fight. A3
* SCENE: Many bar owners and customers around the state are flouting the state’s ban on smoking. A3
* TOBACCO CHIEFS: Five tobacco executives went before a congressional panel to persuade lawmakers to ratify the $368.5-billion tobacco bill. D1