ANR UPDATE, 35(1), Spring 2016

People vs. Big Tobacco: Celebrating 40 Years of Smokefree Progress

In the early 1970s, pockets of citizens in California, as well as in other parts of the country, mobilized and began to speak out against smoking in public places and workplaces. They were sick and tired of inhaling smoke in their offices, their classrooms, and public places like stores and restaurants. Back then, the science was not yet as crystal clear as it is today. Questions remained about how dangerous secondhand smoke was to nonsmokers' health, and, in fact, if it was dangerous at all.

Still, these pioneers of the smokefree movement knew that smoke irritated their throats and noses, and for many, such as asthmatics, made it more challenging to breathe. So they didn't wait for the research to catch up with them. They acted, with passion and vigor, demanding that areas of workplaces and public places be designated as nonsmoking zones.

Local coalitions, like those in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, organized around the potential health dangers of secondhand smoke and began to communicate with one another, sharing their ideas and resources. In March of 1976, these local groups merged to incorporate as the California Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP), which became Californians for Nonsmokers' Rights in 1981 and then Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) in 1986.

California GASP first lobbied for and succeeded in passing a law to limit smoking in public places in Berkeley in 1977. When a subsequent effort to enact a statewide law failed, GASP pursued statewide clean indoor air initiatives at the ballot in 1978 and 1980, but the tobacco industry was ready and spent about $10 million to defeat them. The fight was familiar: people versus money. Knowing that the industry was not as strong at the local level, GASP took stock and went back to working on mobilizing advocates in strong local campaigns.Starting in the 1980's the science finally caught up with the advocates and showed them to be prescient indeed. Each year, peer-reviewed scientific research provided more evidence about the serious health risks of secondhand smoke exposure. But the science alone was not enough for policymakers to pass stronger smokefree laws, because the tobacco industry was throwing more money at the problem, investing millions of dollars to counter new laws, inserting lobbyists, creating front groups, and hiring physicians and other "experts" to question the research.

In 1983, a watershed event occurred for nonsmokers' rights. The City of San Francisco enacted a law limiting smoking in workplaces, and, given San Francisco's status as a major city, the tobacco industry was afraid to let it stand. The industry put the measure on the ballot as a referendum and it came up for a vote that November. Incredibly, the industry spent more than a million dollars to overturn the law, but even though they were outspent more than 10-1, nonsmokers won the day with a narrow victory. It was now safe for communities throughout the country to enact smokefree laws, knowing that the industry could be defeated. And that is exactly what started to happen.

The tobacco industry continued to insert itself in local campaigns and did everything it could to prevent smokefree laws. Fortunately, nonsmokers had one critical component on their side: smokefree advocates. People nationwide began reaching out to Californians for Nonsmokers' Rights and then to ANR for campaign plans, sample ordinance language, talking points to refute tobacco industry arguments, and other types of one-on-one assistance. In the late 1980s, Congress adopted a ban on smoking during all domestic airline flights, and the local ordinances began to pass like wildfire.

Over the next two decades fierce battles exploded in local council chambers and state legislatures, not to mention a few courtrooms. During this time, ANR remained the national go-to organization to provide local support. Staff delivered on-the-ground assistance to advocates, including secondhand smoke research, talking points, maps, lists, model language, and other campaign tools to help local and state coalitions pass laws to protect everyone from secondhand smoke exposure.

Starting in the 1990's after California enacted a relatively good law, local efforts turned to statewide efforts and strong state laws emerged. The tobacco industry and its allies fought ANR on each and every one of those laws. We lost some campaigns, but we have won far more than we have lost. We have grown and changed with the times, remaining flexible and creative in our campaigns, finding new ways to engage with the next generation of smokefree advocates. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are excited to inspire and mobilize this new generation. Because, as we know from the past four decades of smokefree campaigns, it will be the passionate ANR members who keep this fight going. Thanks to that passion, together we will finish the job and bring smokefree air to the remaining 50% of the U.S. population, get secondhand smoke out of casinos and multi-unit housing, and counter new threats (like e-cigarettes) as they emerge.

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