For decades, Big Tobacco focused its political largesse on the U.S. Congress and the presidency. But by 1988, when California voters passed a tough anti-smoking law despite a $15 million campaign against it, the industry knew it needed a more sophisticated strategy. The solution: Fund front groups of consumers or retailers with no obvious ties to tobacco, and use them to push for state “pre-emption” laws.
Tobacco-backed pre-emption laws appear to be stringent anti-smoking measures. The catch is that these measures are weak and supersede any stronger local restrictions on tobacco.
Pre-emption laws generally succeed when voters believe them to be genuine anti-smoking efforts (as was the case in Maine, for example, where a bill recently passed without any mention of the tobacco industry’s involvement); the laws usually fail when their connections to Big Tobacco are revealed (as in Minnesota, where a leaked memo exposed the role of the industry and turned the tide against its front group). In all, 28 states have now passed pre-emption laws.
The irony is that while the tobacco industry spouts “local control” rhetoric, it is cynically using front groups and statewide pre-emption laws to snuff out genuine grassroots initiatives to control smoking.