Burson-Marsteller and the National Smokers Alliance

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This article was first published as "Smokers' Hacks: the Tobacco Lobby's PR Front Groups", PR Watch, volume 1, number 1, Third Quarter 1994. The original article was authored by John C. Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


Recent news coverage might lead you to believe that tobacco is on its last legs, as its opponents lobby for aggressive public education and strict new regulations to prevent youthful addiction and to protect the public's right to a smoke-free environment.

If you believe this, you're dead wrong, according to the chief PR lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Although tobacco's addicts are dying by the millions each year, sales are growing world-wide, says Tom Lauria of the Tobacco Institute.

At a PR seminar in May, Lauria dismissed tobacco critics as simply the latest "political correctness craze." He ridiculed predictions of tobacco's demise, saying that the media has been preparing smoking's obituary for decades.

Despite the bad press tobacco has been receiving, industry profits are soaring, and the industry is opening new, unregulated mega-markets in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Third World. Even in the United States, most attempts at serious federal or state regulation or taxation are swatted down by tobacco's skilled army of highly paid lobbyists.

Lauria's message to the assembled PR practitioners was that while tobacco may be fighting for its life, its been fighting and winning for a long time. One way the cigarette industry intends to keep winning is by escalating to unprecedented levels its use of PR front groups, such as the National Smokers Alliance.

Snatching Victory from the Ashes

Tobacco front groups date back at least to the 1950s when Hill & Knowlton formed the Tobacco Institute Research Committee. (See article on page 10.) But the latest front group, the National Smokers Alliance, is more ambitious and better-funded than any previous grassroots campaign.

Burson-Marsteller runs the NSA with money from the Philip Morris Company. In recent months, as the FDA and some politicians have increased their efforts to regulate smoking, the NSA has responded with a nationwide mobilization that it claims is bringing thousands of smokers into its ranks each week.

Burson-Marsteller's state-of-the-art campaign utilizes full-page newspaper ads, direct telemarketing, paid canvassers, free 800 numbers, newsletters and letters to send to federal agencies. B-M is targeting the fifty million Americans who smoke. Its goal is to rile-up and mobilize a committed cadre of hundreds of thousands, better yet millions, to be foot soldiers in a grassroots army directed by Philip Morris's political operatives at Burson-Marsteller.

The "National Smoker's Alliance" (NSA) is a sophisticated, hi-tech campaign that organizes tobacco's victims to protect tobacco's profits.

In recent years California has been the front line of the tobacco wars and the state where the industry has suffered its worst setbacks. In 1988 the cigarette companies spent more than $20 million in a failed effort to defeat a major anti-smoking initiative. Since then health activists have succeeded in passing hundreds of local smoking bans. As a result, California has seen a 30% decrease in cigarette consumption, the most success of any state in reducing tobacco's deadly toll.

Philip Morris is fighting back through the NSA and a lesser-known California PR firm called the Dolphin Group. Funded with a reported half-million dollars from Philip Morris, Dolphin CEO Lee Stitzenberger set up a front group deceptively named "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions." Using this name to fool petition signers, the group has gathered the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to place a pro-smoking referendum before California voters this November. If passed, the referendum will do away with the hundreds of strong local anti-smoking ordinances in California.

Philip Morris knows that to win a pro-smoking initiative it has to produce troops, people who can willingly argue on its behalf. The NSA is a sophisticated, camouflaged campaign that organizes tobacco's victims to protect tobacco's profits.

In the past, the tobacco industry attempted, not too convincingly, to distance itself from the pro-smoking forces. The Tobacco Institute's Brennan Dawson told the Congressional Quarterly in 1990, "If we were to fund smokers' rights groups and bring them to Washington, wouldn't they then be viewed as an arm of the tobacco industry?"

Apparently desperate times require more obvious measures. Writing in the National Journal (5/28/94), journalist Peter Stone observed that NSA "is increasingly looking like a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller," and noted that the PR firm "used its grassroots lobbying unit, the Advocacy Communications Team, to start building membership in the group last year."

Thomas Humber, a B-M vice president, is president and CEO of the NSA. Burson executives Kenneth Rietz and Pierre Salinger are active, as is Peter G. Kelly, a prominent Democrat with the firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, which is owned by Burson-Marsteller.

Perhaps the tobacco industry is less concerned these days about fooling the news media, but it still appears important that the public not view the members of the NSA as pawns of Philip Morris or Burson Marsteller. Therefore, the names of the NSA's corporate funders and organizers are kept off of the group's materials.

How does the NSA recruit smoking's victims into becoming its advocates? Through a combination of high-tech direct marketing techniques and old fashioned "Feet in the Street" community organizing.

Like every good grassroots group, the National Smokers Alliance has a folksy but strident newsletter for its membership, called "The NSA Voice." According to its June 1994 issue, the NSA is paying hundreds of young activists, mostly unemployed college students, to sign up NSA members in bars and bowling alleys in Washington, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York Seattle and other cities.

Eric Schippers, in charge of the membership drive, reports that "during only the first two months of activity, the Chicago campaign put 180 recruiters on the street and enlisted more than 40,000 members." He claims that such one-on-one organizing has helped swell the NSA ranks to more than 300,000 smokers.

Many NSA members are first recruited via full-page ads with 800 numbers that exhort puffers to stand up for their rights. Everyone who calls receives the NSA newsletter free for three months, along with 10 membership recruitment cards and stickers to place in stores and restaurants that say, "I am a smoker and have spent $_____ in your establishment."

NSA members who sign up another ten people at $10 each can win a free NSA t-shirt. The committed and informed pro-smoking advocate can also call a free 800 number to order more sign-up cards and stickers, or get the latest marching orders regarding which bureaucrats or politicians need nudging from Marlboro's masses.

One recent NSA mailing, sent first class to hundreds of thousands of smokers, urged that letters be sent to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to defeat new regulations that would "BAN SMOKING IN ANY SITE WHERE WORK IS CONDUCTED" (capitalization in the original).

B-M's propagandists have even coined a clever play on words that questions the patriotism of anti-smokers by calling them "anti Americans." NSA's newsletter advises, "If 'Anti' America is pushing a discriminatory smoking ban in your workplace, speak up," and "check the laws in your state with regard to the protection of individual rights."

Burson-Marsteller is more than happy to take the money that Philip Morris is pouring into its pro-smoking campaign, and Philip Morris has plenty of millions to spend. But this campaign is not really about swaying public opinion, a battle which the tobacco industry has already lost. Even half of the smokers say they favor stricter government regulation of their deadly habit.

The tobacco industry's goal is not to win good PR, but to avoid losing political and legal battles. This survivalist strategy has served the cigarette industry well for forty years.

The NSA provides Philip Morris with the shock troops they need to fight back at all levels. If the NSA and other deceptive PR practices can pull off a victory in California this November, more and more PR firms will likely imitate B-M's technique of organizing front groups on behalf of their corporate clients.

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