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Women, Blacks Courted : Big Tobacco Buying New Friendships

May 22, 1988|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer

The tobacco industry is forging new, behind-the-scenes relationships in its effort to fight smoking bans and excise taxes and polish its image.

The $35-billion-a-year industry has aligned itself with organized labor and black, Latino and women's groups, whose civil rights rhetoric and appeals for social justice have a special resonance in American life.

Cash and public relations know-how are being lavished on these allies. Tobacco money may buy anything from scholarships and entertainment to printing and legal services. Meanwhile, the cigarette makers often stay behind the lines.

Slick Guidebook

Take the case of a slickly produced guidebook telling workers how smoking restrictions can be "a smoke screen" to avoid safety improvements and duck liability for industrial disease.

"Remember, although he may say he only has the workers' best interests at heart, when he's talking about smoking policies, a boss is still a boss," the booklet warns. It bears the seals of five big unions, including the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. But the seal of the group that bankrolled the guide--the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying group--isn't there.

A brochure for the public bearing only the name of the American Agriculture Movement attacks excise taxes on cigarettes, fuel and other goods as unfair to small farmers. The tobacco industry co-authored and printed it.

In 1986, when Congress considered banning discount sale of cigarettes in military commissaries, the American Logistics Assn. issued a study on how the move would rob military personnel of part of their benefits. Few, if any, readers could have known the author was a tobacco-industry consultant.

Killing With Kindness

In the days when states and city councils left tobacco pretty much alone and senior Southern pols repulsed the few attacks in Congress, such creative liaisons weren't needed. Today, the industry must try killing foes with kindness--as it has, for example, by showering money on fire-prevention groups to blur cigarettes' status as the leading cause of fatal fires.

"The 'all-powerful tobacco lobby' is better characterized as the very wealthy tobacco lobby," Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), said in an interview. "It's powerful and it pays its way, but it is a different kind of operation than it was 15, 20 years ago . . . because tobacco's got more problems in this town than it ever had before."

To meet the threat, individual companies--particularly industry leader Philip Morris (Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, Virginia Slims, Merit) and No. 2 RJR Nabisco (Winston, Salem, Camel, Vantage)--supplement the lobbying of the Tobacco Institute, which represents five of the six leading cigarette makers and several smaller tobacco firms.

Founded in 1958, the institute has a staff of 100 in Washington and several regional offices. Its budget topped $29 million in 1986, according to disclosure forms obtained from the Internal Revenue Service under the Freedom of Information Act.

The institute churns out brochures, reports and videos; lobbies Congress and state legislatures; and sends industry-paid experts--in what it calls "truth squads"--on cross-country media tours to deny the risks of secondhand smoke.

These days, the big push is for "coalition-building." This often involves financial help to groups whose pro-industry stands are cited as evidence of independent support.

Rankles Industry Foes

Brennan Moran, media relations director for the institute, said the strategy rankles only those who have it in for the industry.

"I don't think there is anything sinister," she said. "It becomes an issue only if you want to look at the tobacco industry as . . . one that shouldn't help groups promote a message that coincides with ours."

The outreach to labor has been a triumph, according to a Tobacco Institute memo, one of many internal documents obtained from well-placed sources for this article. The memo describes a Florida meeting of AFL-CIO leaders in February, 1987. It says: "When we attended our first AFL-CIO midwinter meeting three years ago, we found a majority of labor leaders and their staffs openly hostile to the industry. . . . Our reception earlier this week, at our third meeting, could not have been friendlier."

The glue for this alliance has been the Tobacco Industry Labor-Management Committee, founded in 1984 and financed by the Tobacco Institute. Of the five unions on the committee, only the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union has a big stake in tobacco, with 17,000 tobacco workers among 135,000 members. The other four unions--the machinists, sheet metal workers, carpenters and firemen and oilers--together have less than 0.5% of their members in the industry, according to figures supplied by the unions.

The workplace-smoking guide, which ascribes ulterior motives to the imposition of smoking rules, was a project of the committee.

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