|Astro-Turf: Bogus Grass-Roots Groups
and the Tobacco Industry
By Jill Kramer
Reprinted from the (Marin County, Calif.), March 13-19, 1996
Look sharp, bar owners of Marin - the tobacco industry will soon be riding into town and sidling up to you and your customers. Ask them who they are and they might tell you they're from the National Smokers Alliance, a grass-roots organization fighting for smokers' rights. They'll show you trumped-up statistics and warn you that your business is about to go down the tubes as the last remaining section of the California smoke-free law kicks in next January, banning smoking in bars. They'll come armed with cute little bar coasters printed with an appeal to you and your customers to sign and register "your right to smoke here."
What they won't tell you is that the National Smokers Alliance (NSA) was created by one of the world's largest public relations firms, Burson-Marsteller, to help its client, Philip Morris, battle no-smoking laws. In fact, if you blow their cover, they'll probably pack up and leave.
The mobilization of so-called grass-roots organizations is a tactic frequently used by PR firms in legislative battles. In this instance, Philip Morris hopes to collect a sufficient number of signed bar coasters to persuade California legislators to roll back the smoking ban. But people don't like being used to fatten corporate profits, So it's the PR firm's job to obfuscate as much as possible the connection between NSA and the tobacco company.
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton recently documented such questionable activities in their new book, Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. They say the Burson-Marsteller 1993 campaign to recruit NSA members cost Philip Morris millions of dollars. The PR firm ran full-page ads and paid people to sign up members in bars and bowling alleys across the country. Now three million strong, NSA publishes a newsletter and sends members special mailings, urging them to write letters opposing new smoking bans.
Authentic citizen-activists call these bogus grass-roots groups "astro-turf." In order to disguise their affiliations with their industry backers, astro-turf organizations change their names as often as Dolly Parton changes wigs. In California, the tobacco lobby went by "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions" to promote Prop 188, the 1994 ballot initiative intended to weaken existing smoking bans. To fight local bans in restaurants, they've shown up as "Restaurants for Sensible Voluntary Policy" and "California Business and Restaurant Alliance." Who knows what they'll call themselves when it comes to the bar ban? You can be sure that it won't be "Philip Morris."
Randy Greenberg and Walt Bilofsky, former co-chairs of the Smoke-Free Marin Coalition, found themselves tripping over astro-turf as local smoking bans circulated throughout the county in the last few years. As each city and town in Marin prepared to ban smoking in restaurants. Greenberg says, municipal clerks would receive calls from mysterious out-of-staters wanting to know the dates of the hearings. More calls were placed to local smokers who had landed on tobacco company mailing lists by ordering cigarette-brand T-shirts and other products. The smokers were urged to show up at the hearings and speak against the ban.
IN MOST AREAS, the smoking lobby can run their campaign and get out of town before the locals figure out what hit them. But here in Marin, where we have 11 different municipalities and 11 different smoking bans, local anti-smoking activists had ample opportunity to get to know their enemy.
"We learned how to make people aware that these calls were coming in," says Greenberg. "And they would ask questions and try to get the callers to identify themselves. Mostly these were paid employees, probably paid a minimum wage, but they would find out who they were working for and we would track down who that was and learn that it was the tobacco industry. When you get calls from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, you know who it's from."
PR operatives showed up in person as well. First they'd visit restaurant owners and tell them that restaurants in other cities with smoking bans suffered a 30 percent drop in business. They'd feed the frightened restaurant owner literature supposedly documenting their case and go with him to the city council hearing. .
"Tracy Scott, a young blonde woman, affiliated herself with the owner of the Hilltop Cafe in Novato," says Greenberg. "She sat with him at the meeting and he would stand up and come up with all this tobacco industry literature. We finally took her aside after a meeting and asked her who she was, and she was with this L.A. firm. And she stopped coming after awhile because she had lost her value when she was identified. Once you're known as a tobacco industry affiliate, you lose credibility. So then they sent up this guy to Sausalito, but we knew him, too."
His name was Rudy Cole, and Walt Bilofsky recognized him from a few years -before, when a smoking ban was considered by the city of Beverly Hills. Bilofsky used to live there before moving to Marin. He recalls that an astro-turf organization emerged suddenly to oppose the ban. "Sometime in the two weeks between the first reading [of the ordinance] and the second reading, a group called the Beverly Hills Restaurant Association was formed and its director was a fellow named Rudy Cole. Rudy was a political consultant and all of a sudden he turned up as the executive director of this new group. Cole attended two meetings of the Sausalito city council, then disappeared. Bilofsky says there was strong local opposition to the Sausalito ban. He suspected it had been orchestrated by the tobacco industry, but was never able to prove it. "From some of the things they were saying and the phrases that they used, it was so similar to what the tobacco industry has used in other places in California that one would have to surmise that they were getting it from the same place. The tobacco industry's fingerprints were all over the o position there. It looked like the Sausalito restaurant community, but smelled like a pack of Marlboros."
Tracy Scott and Rudy Cole are listed among the representatives of more than 40 tobacco industry front groups tracked by Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. The Berkeley-based ANR continually updates its listings, as new groups arc created - or old groups renamed. "When we get groups like these coming to town, if we are able to expose their ties to the tobacco industry, then we can neutralize a lot of the impact they would have," says ANR program associate Kevin Goebel. "But it's an ongoing process. They're neutralized in one area and they just spring up somewhere else. Or they come up with an entirely new name and we have to do more sleuthing to expose them."
ANTI-SMOKING ACTIVISTS are also kept busy refuting the tobacco industry's disinformation campaigns. Scott, Cole and other PR operatives often recruit business owners to their cause with warnings that the smoking ban will drive away their customers. They've got documentation to prove it and testimony from business owners to back it up. But activists charge that the data is false.
Up until recently, the PR strategy was aimed at owners of restaurants, bowling alleys and other gathering places that don't have liquor licenses - because the statewide smoking ban initially exempted bars. So the story offered by the PR folks was that customers were deserting the smoke-free, liquor-free establishments, going instead to places with bars where they can smoke.
But the exemption for bars is due to expire next January. So the new strategy is to tell bar owners that those same smoking customers will desert them next. (Where will they go? Mexico?)
The PR firms can always find disgruntled business owners to complain that they've been hurt by the ban. But many smoke-free restaurants have seen an increase in business. Walt Bilofsky remembers that Piazza D'Angelo in Mill Valley voiced concerns about the ban at first, but later reported that business actually increased. Some months afterward, when the smoking ban was being considered by the county, says Bilofsky, "they wrote a letter to the county and said, this has been good for us and we recommend the county pass it. So the experience is really a lot different from the fears."
In San Diego, where Burson-Marsteller recently launched its new campaign to recruit bar owners, the American Lung Association's Bob Doyle reports that restaurants have been thriving. "They tell the bar owners that restaurants are dying because of this statewide smoking ordinance in effect right now, which is one hundred percent false," says Doyle. "Sales tax data filed by restaurants show that business is the best it's been in years."
When presented with this information, Gwyn Bicker at Burson-Marsteller's Sacramento office questions its relevance. "Do you know that the business increase is due to the smoking ban?" she asks. "Or does it in fact have anything to do with the turnaround of the economy?" But after it's pointed out that the same questions apply to her data on business loss, she admits there's no clear proof of cause and effect. "It's a hit-and-miss issue," she says. "It's hard to get your arms around it."
THERE IS ALSO some debate as to the ethics of astro-turf campaigns. The organization of citizen lobbying groups is common practice, not just for the tobacco industry, but for any business that wants to exert political influence. Is it ever ethical? And if so, when is it unethical?
Ann Solem, who with her husband Don owns the public relations firm Solem & Associates, says they observe certain ethics criteria in their grass-roots organizing. "One of the things that we always try to be careful about if we do this," she says, "is that the group makes its own decisions. It's not a front group that takes directions from some corporate executive who's out there pulling the strings. 'That's deceptive and I think that crosses the line into unethical."
The Solems pride themselves on their high ethical standards. Their San Francisco-based firm specializes in public affairs, and they've sought out public service issues such as teen pregnancy and recycling. But Solem & Associates handled a campaign for PG&E two years ago that some found questionable. The City of Alameda was considering a proposal to municipalize the gas lines. PG&E conducted a mail survey to identify ratepayers opposed to the idea, then hired Solem & Associates to organize them under the name "Alameda Citizens for Economic Security." With staffing provided by the PR firm, the new citizens group successfully lobbied the city council into dropping the proposal,
When the Alameda Times-Star investigated the matter, PG&E at first denied having organized the group and refused to divulge how much funding it was providing. City officials denounced the campaign as "deceptive" and "misleading." Some of the group's members were aware that they were being funded by PG&E-but others expressed surprise when they found out. But Solem maintains there was never any secret about it. "I've never considered it unethical in the sense that it was secretive, misleading or designed to deceive. Is there something unethical about you helping organize community support on your behalf, as long as you're open about it? It is continued a technique that's used by public relations and by lobbyists and by, corporations and by environmental groups and by everybody else. I don't know that because it's done by one kind of-organization versus another kind or organization, it crosses the line between ethical and unethical."
ONE LITMUS TEST for ethics might be to determine the underlying purpose of the campaign. Did PG&E and its citizens group have the same goal in mind? The citizens group rallied together out of concern that the municipalization plan might cost the city more than it would save. Was PG&E concerned about the city's bottom line or its own?
And does Philip Morris really care about "smokers' rights"? Or is it simply protecting its own profits? The question was put to Thomas Humber, the former Burson-Marsteller senior vice president who masterminded the creation of the National Smokers Alliance. Humber left the PR firm two years ago to become president of NSA. He responded to the question with several of his own. "Did it ever occur to anybody that maybe Philip Morris did it in response to their consumers? Now, I'm sure it never occurred to my friends in the anti-smoking group. And it probably never, occurred to many people in the media. But does it make sense that Philip Morris started getting more mail than they ever had from smokers saying, what can we do? What can you do to help us?" When asked how much mail the company received in that regard, Humber only replied, "Quite a bit."
Another ethics consideration, as Ann Solem suggests, is whether or not group members are informed of their corporate backing. In most cases, astro-turf campaigns only work when their corporate roots are hidden. Prop 188, for example, was defeated when activists exposed the ballot initiative's tobacco industry sponsorship.
But that was a lucky break for antismoking activists. Campaign materials going out to voters are required to identify funding sources. But when laws are enacted by our state representatives, the voters have no way of identifying the lobbying groups behind them. "The way the rules are currently written," says Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights' Goebel, "the tobacco industry is still able to conceal what they do in the legislature to a large extent." Philip Morris lost at the polls in California, so now the industry giant is going straight to the legislature.
HUMBER HOPES he'll have thousands of signed bar coasters to help him make his point. "Obviously, the only relief possible is going to occur in the California legislature," says Humber. "I would hope somebody in the California legislature who cares about small businesses would start to pay attention and take a look at this." He's also hoping that a Republican-controlled state Assembly will look more kindly on his agenda than the Democrats did when they passed the statewide smoking ban in 1993.
Humber sees the issue of "smokers' rights" in broader terms, as a matter of individuals' rights over regulation. He says that 20 percent of NSA's three million members are nonsmokers who support the group agenda for libertarian reasons. The American Lung Association's Bob Doyle confirms that NSA recruiters have used that approach in their pitch to bar owners. "They tell them government's trying to run your life and government's telling you how to run your business," says Doyle.
Author John Stauber fears that the powerful, multi-national firm of Burson-Marsteller is constructing a right-wing juggernaut. His, somewhat hyperbolical, assumption is that the people who are going to be vehement advocates for smokers' rights' are also going to support a strong right-wing Pat Buchanan type of agenda. "So what they've mobilized, with Philip Morris money and Burson-Marsteller expertise," says Stauber, "is three million people who are probably available as a list to be rented out to support a whole variety of right-wing, libertarian, pro-business issues. What they have there is an extremely valuable mailing list of, for the most part, right-wing zealots who would rather advocate for the right to blow smoke into people's faces than understand that this is an addictive drug that kills 400,000 people a year."
Whether or not the astro-turf recruits are ever sold off to new buyers, they're powerful enough in the hands of their present sponsors. As we see in the ongoing battle against the California smoking ban, the tobacco industry is unstoppable even in the face of repeated defeats. "They learn from their mistakes, they have limitless capital and they never go away," says Stauber. "So it's like dealing with some creature out of Terminator. just when you think they've fallen into a fiery pit, they walk through your wall. When you think about it, tobacco is truly the Terminator."
Copyright © 1996 Pacific Sun Publishing Co. Reprinted with permission.