Project Breakthrough

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Project Breakthrough was a national underground campaign started by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company in 1994 to "orchestrate a massive, unprecedented public relations blitz" aimed at linking tobacco control efforts directly to alcohol Prohibition in the public mind, even though prohibition of tobacco has never been a stated goal of any public health authority in the U.S. "Prohibition" was an American social movement in the 1920s and 1930s that attempted to eliminate the sale and use of alcohol nationally. It is generally considered to have been extreme and to have ended in failure.

Project Breakthrough is a classic example of the industry PR strategy of "Reframing the Debate".

Project Description

RJR described "Project Breakthrough" this way in a planning document:


1. Objective: create a campaign which frames and answers this question: Does America want prohibition? Will we tolerate a puritanical wave to infringe, to restrict and possibly to eliminate personal freedoms and individual choices?


  • reframe the debate: efforts all aim at return to prohibition, either front-door or back-door.
  • make prohibition a clear and present danger now in our society; give it pejorative currency similar to the tax and spend issue in the early 1980s.
  • directly tie the anti-smoker rhetoric with the stigma of prohibition; that's what they really want.
  • spread the stigma to others: who's next; alcohol, beef, pork, private property, logging, fur, cholesterol, motorcycles, and others.

(Description of project taken from RJR internal PROJECT BREAKTHROUGH 1995 BRIEFING MANUAL)

The campaign had several different phases designed generally to instill fear in Americans that rules restricting smoking would lead to increased crime and smuggling, economic failure, inability to purchase and use a host of other products, and the elimination of civil rights and freedoms.

Sample Project Breakthrough ads can be seen at the following URLs:




RJR ran these ads, and many others like them, in 32 major American daily newspapers, plus magazines like TIME, U.S. News and World Report, Vanity Fair, ethnically targeted publications like Blacks in Law Enforcement, and popular publications like Rolling Stone and People. Other campaign components included direct mailings to individuals and a "video petition" sent to legislators in Washington, D.C.[1][2]

The campaign appears to have lasted about 4 years. RJR considered the effort successful, according to an October, 1994 update on the project prepared by Tom Griscom, Executive Vice President of External Relations and sent to Charles M. Harper, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp. Griscom's report claimed the campaign resulted in decreased support for raising the federal tax on cigarettes, generated 29,000 calls to a toll-free hotline, and put the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on the defensive, among other successes.[3]

"Project Breakthrough" appears to have been RJR's response to a number of public health initiatives occuring at the time, including the broadcast of an ABC "Day One" news program about spiking of nicotine in cigarettes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's effort to regulate nicotine as a drug, and President Clinton's proposal to fund health care nationally through a $1.00 increase in the federal cigarette tax.

Documents describing Project Breakthrough links the argument that smoking laws are a form prohibition directly to RJR.

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