Paying for the Rope That Hangs Them

The anti-tobacco ultra-PC crusade being conducted by the immodestly named group "Truth" employs a "gritty, underground style" of advertising. For example, one ad called "The Body Bag," features a protest in front of a tobacco company conducted by teenagers who pile up body bags six-feet high in order to symbolize "the 1,200 people who die in the U.S. from tobacco use each day." Much can be said of The Truth's moralistic in-your-face strategy, including how it conflates a contributing factor with a cause. I prefer to ask an age-old question: from where does the money come? The Truth movement claims to have been "launched by America's youth." So where do teenagers get the multi-millions of dollars required to conduct the slick ad campaigns and the guerilla-tactic training camps for anti-tobacco activists? Who finances the professionally designed site, the staff, the nationally syndicated hip-hop radio show TRUTH-FM, the phone lines…?

In the Truth FAQ page (frequently asked questions), an answer to this pecuniary puzzle appears: "We get all of our money from The American Legacy Foundation" (ALF), an anti-smoking organization founded as the result of the $206 billion Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 between the government and the tobacco industry. All of ALF's money (it is a $1.45 billion foundation) comes from these "tobacco dollars." This casts a different light on another Truth TV ad in which teenagers telephone Hollywood producers who make films in which characters smoke: tobacco companies usually pay a fee to the film makers if their specific brands are featured. In the Truth ad, the teens demand to know why the producers are taking "tobacco dollars." Hollywood moguls should have replied, "We figured it was okay since you've been doing the same thing."

Unfortunately, the source of Truth's funding has been difficult to track down until recently, thus depriving smoker's rights advocates of such a response. In July 2000, the Capital Research Center (CRC) ran an article by Martin Morse Wooster, author of "Return to Charity? Philanthropy and the Welfare State." The article entitled "The American Legacy Foundation's u2018Truth Campaign': Using Tobacco Funds for Anti-Smoking Ads" amounted to an expose. True to the CRC's mission to revive "the American traditions of charity, philanthropy, and voluntarism", Wooster analyzed Truth and ALF – institutions that shape opinion – in order to inform the public about how they are funded and whether they abide by their own stated policies.

Lamentably, the question of how Truth and ALF are funded is likely to raise little public controversy despite the rampant hypocrisy of the former's ad campaign. Forcing companies to foot the bill for propaganda campaigns that vilify them is now established practice backed up by court precedent. Blaming companies for the dangers related to their products – however clearly those dangers are labeled or known by consumers – is just one more indication of how thoroughly personal responsibility has been eroded in our society. Indeed, the erosion is so severe that when The Onion – a site devoted to satire – ran an article entitled "Hershey's Ordered to Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion" many individuals and lists to whom it was forwarded thought the "news" item was serious. PC campaigns have become so absurd that the venerable tradition of political parody is now close to impossible to practice in America.

Attention shifts, therefore, to the CRC's second focus, the question of whether institutions like ALF abide by their own stated policies and legal restrictions. By the terms of the sixth section of the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, tobacco manufacturers agreed to support education programs aimed at reducing youth substance abuse. Clause (h) of this section places restrictions on what ALF may do. For example, the grant making arm of ALF – from which Truth is funded – may not conduct education or advertising that constitutes a "vilification of, any person (whether by name or business affiliation), company or governmental agency, whether individually or collectively." It is difficult to argue with honesty that Truth ads such as "The Lie Detector" do not vilify both specific tobacco companies and individuals. In this piece of propaganda, a teenager descends upon Phillip Morris in order to hook up executives to a lie detector machine that will determine if they are liars. When Phillip Morris claimed that the ad violated the anti-vilification clause of the court settlement, their logo was removed from the ad. Only when the Attorney General of North Carolina wrote to ALF and warned that the ad jeopardized its funding was "The Lie Detector" withdrawn. Vilifying statements on web sites still remain. For example, Truth claims that it is not "cool" to "screw up" your body "so some corporate guy in a suit can afford another Lexus."

Perhaps fear of losing "tobacco dollars" is behind some of the rather incredible statements made by Truth and ALF. Another restriction placed on ALF section six reads: "The Foundation shall not engage in, nor shall any of the Foundation's money be used to engage in, any political activities or lobbying, including, but not limited to, support of or opposition to candidates, ballot initiatives, referenda or other activities." Thus, Truth is "officially" nonpolitical. Question 5 of Truth's FAQ is: "Where do you guys get off trying to tell me how to live my life? If I want to smoke that's my own decision." The answer: "Chill. We totally respect people's freedom of choice – different strokes for different folks, you know?" Many critics of the militant anti-smoking campaign believe that it defies credibility to believe that Truth and ALF would not legally prohibit tobacco, if they could. They point to the make-up of ALF's eleven-member Board of Directors as proof of its political intentions: six of the members are hold high political office and constitute a voting majority on the Board.

Nevertheless, Question 12 of Truth's FAQ asks "Do we want to ban smoking?" The answer: "That's not our goal." I believe Truth. I do not think they would ban smoking even if they could. I think the tobacco FAQ offered by The Jester's Court offers a sophisticated analysis, despite its sarcasm. "What if consumers stop buying tobacco products? That would be very bad. That would mess up the economics of the whole thing. The government would probably have to set up an emergency task force to figure out ways to get people smoking again in order to finance the historic tobacco settlement." On a more serious note, Wooster opens his article expose with a summary statement that includes the question of whether the ALF funds have benefited the public or just a few "ad agencies and anti-tobacco activists?" After all, when Florida – a leader in the ALF crusade – cut its anti-tobacco budget by over half, eleven of thirty-one anti-smoking zealots were reassigned from their plush and "morally righteous" jobs.

Wooster suggests that ALF's "ultimate legacy" may be little more than "a massive transfer of wealth from tobacco consumers and the retail market to well-to-do foundation officials and advertising executives". As Peter Grier states in the Christian Science Monitor, "Not even the toughest anti-smoking group wants 43 million smokers to have to quit, cold turkey." Instead, they want a fully regulated tobacco industry that continues to pay fat profits that can be raked in by those who use the political means. Their goal? In the words of that eminent American philosopher Mel Brooks, "We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, gentlemen!"

September 25, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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