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Big Tobacco Uses Winning Game Plan Against Opponents

June 04, 1998|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In politics, as in football, it's a lot easier to stop the opponent's big play than to complete your own. With that in mind, the cigarette manufacturers are making headway in their campaign to kill the far-reaching tobacco control legislation in the Senate.

With one difference, the tobacco industry's strategy parallels that taken by the insurance industry in 1994 to kill President Clinton's national health insurance plan.

The difference: The cigarette companies are prepared to spend millions of dollars more than the insurance industry ever contemplated. According to tobacco industry sources, the manufacturers have spent between $25 million and $50 million so far.

Their formula is sophisticated, yet simple: Use a broad-based ad campaign to make people worry that the government is going to take away their choices and raise their taxes, vilify the bill's sponsor and organize a deluge of calls and letters to congressional offices.

"In the American legislative system, it's easier to stop things than it is to do them, but big, complicated legislation is especially difficult to build sustained support for," said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor of government and sociology who has written extensively on health care reform.

"To the degree that opponents can delay and then imply that there's something complicated or threatening embedded in the measure . . . they can throw up enough roadblocks to bottle it up," she said.

The cigarette manufacturers easily found the thorn in the rose: the cigarette price increase at the core of the bill. In health care reform, the bramble was the charge that providing health care for all would dilute the quality of care for those who already had it.

In both cases, the subliminal message was that government was out to meddle in people's lives.

"The tobacco industry is finding that when the issue comes to freedom of choice and the government imposing constraints on someone's life, they have a little bit of a gold-mine issue," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University's school of communications.

Steve Duchesne, a spokesman for the tobacco industry with BSMG Worldwide, a consulting firm that helped design the ad campaign, added that the industry made inroads by stressing that a big price increase would fuel a cigarette black market.

One particularly gripping ad shows ordinary Americans giving what is made to look like candid, unrehearsed responses to questions about the tobacco legislation. After a voice-over says: "Americans speak out on a half-trillion-dollar tax increase on tobacco," the camera shows people commenting:

"That's a lot of zeros."

"It's crazy."

"It will end up hurting everybody."

"They just tax us too much and spend too much."

Broadcast advertisements such as that one have been running since mid-April along with print ads in 50 markets.

Steve Goldstone, chief executive officer of R.J. Reynolds, recently traveled to Phoenix, the home town of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the bill's chief author, to hammer home the big-government warning.

"This was not a response you would normally expect from a Republican committee seeking to regulate a $60-billion industry," Goldstone said.

The industry added an expensive but effective high-tech gimmick: a toll-free phone number at the end of every ad that people could use to send a telegram to Washington or be hooked into the office of their senator to urge a no vote on the tobacco bill.

Callers listen to a recording that says: "The Senate is voting on the McCain tobacco tax bill, which would increase taxes, threaten 2 million American jobs and create a black market in cigarettes."

As of Wednesday, 200,000 people had called and 150,000 of those had opted for direct contact, according to Duchesne.

"In terms of sheer size and scope, the tobacco industry has taken this technique to a new level," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "I can't think of any campaign since health care reform that's had this volume."

Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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