IN my hometown of Springfield, Ill., a small group of residents recently attended their first ``smokers' rights'' meeting. The meeting demonstrated a shrewd new tactic by the tobacco industry to defend the product and its profits. It was sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco USA, which compiled a list of local smokers; mailed out the invitations; rented a room at a local hotel; provided free soda, cookies, cigarette lighters, ashtrays, pens, and campaign literature; and coughed up the speakers.
R.J. Reynolds is working to organize 239 of these meetings across the country. To avoid confrontations with local health groups, the meetings are not advertised. Rather, the company uses its own mailing lists generated from cigarette rebate coupons and other merchandising gimmicks.
Smokers sit through a carefully scripted program and videotape that portrays them as a persecuted minority. The speakers dwell on the tax revenue generated by tobacco, brag about the economic clout of smokers, and encourage political activity against smoking restrictions. The health effects of smoking and the rights of nonsmokers are never mentioned.
The audience then is asked to sign up for the next monthly meeting, and a new local smokers' rights group is off and running. To help its brainchild on its way, the tobacco industry also provides:
A toll-free nationwide ``hotline'' and a detailed political ``action guide'' to help militant smokers organize against local anti-smoking ordinances, courtesy of R.J. Reynolds.
A free newsletter for smokers, also from R.J. Reynolds, containing highly localized ``action alerts'' about smoking issues in major states.
A glossy ``Passport to Smokers' Rights'' kit, complete with talking points, draft letters and preprinted postcards to public officials and government agencies, produced by the Tobacco Institute.
An ``editorial service'' that sends out pro-tobacco editorials to local newspapers and a massive ``American Smokers' Manual,'' both produced by Philip Morris.
In addition, a new national clearinghouse called the ``Smokers' Rights Alliance'' (SRA) has been created by the tobacco industry to help coordinate the local groups that R.J. Reynolds is setting up. SRA claims to be a nonprofit group which operates on ``limited resources'' that come from membership dues and private donations, including ``some in-kind assistance from the Tobacco Institute.'' In fact, SRA receives substantial amounts of help from tobacco sources besides the Tobacco Institute.
The goal is to create what appears to be a grass-roots movement of smokers fighting for their civil rights. Some individuals no doubt believe this, and in a few cases their groups have managed to generate resistance to local health initiatives. But in reality these smokers' rights organizations are little more than an economic tool of the tobacco industry.
This campaign illustrates a telling weakness of the tobacco lobby. The Tobacco Institute, which represents only one industry, has the luxury of money, staff, and access in Washington; but politically, its grass-roots loyalty is shallow.
By comparison, the ``health lobby'' in Washington is small and underfunded, but extremely dedicated. Among the most active health groups on smoking issues are the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and the American Heart Association - all nonprofit organizations that are prohibited from making political contributions. Their effectiveness is due to the medical truth of their arguments and the grass-roots activism of their members.
The first major battle between these groups has already begun over renewal of the 1987 law that bans smoking on airline flights of two hours or less. The ban automatically expires next April unless renewed by Congress.
The Federal Aviation Administration, flight attendants, and a recent national opinion poll of airline passengers all indicate the law is an overwhelming success. Even a strong majority of smoking passengers support the ban.
When the airline smoking ban first squeaked through Congress two years ago, the national coalition of local health groups provided crucial political support. The tobacco industry, stung by the loss, is spending millions of dollars to create its own version of that weapon in the form of a smokers' rights ``movement.'' During a recent congressional hearing into the airline smoking ban, its Smokers' Rights Alliance dutifully submitted a statement demanding a return to the smoky skies.
But the tobacco lobby is being less than candid when it points to such groups as an independent, grass-roots initiative. Such groups are a cover for one of the most powerful, well-financed special interests in the US. They were invented to protect profits - not personal rights.