Fakin’ It

Inside “smoker’s rights” groups–Big Tobacco’s first effort to speak on behalf of the people.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Not long ago, he represented R.J. Reynolds on the front lines of its war against proposed smoking restrictions and taxes on tobacco products. Today he insists his name not be used, given all the threats he has received for championing the cause of the tobacco giant. Besides, he says, he signed a confidentiality statement.

Secrecy aside, his mission, he says, was to help assemble the nation of smokers into something that would pass for a grassroots movement capable of fending off regulation, excise taxes, and any other threat to RJR’s bottom line. A “field coordinator,” he was one of some two dozen assigned to hold the line in their respective regions of the country.

Each region, in fact, had a genuine popular uprising made up of legislators, physicians, consumers, parents–all decrying the death and disease wrought by cigarettes. RJR’s response, far from merely providing information to a voluntary movement of smokers’ rights advocates, sounds more like conscription. Sometimes he had to contact hundreds of smokers to field a ragtag army of 20 or 30 people for a smokers’ rights meeting. He likens it to the old Marxist practice of party-building, one cell at a time.

“You try not to ever let your link be known,” he says. “If your name never pops up in the paper, you’re doing your job.” The more the smokers’ rights movement could be presented as a spontaneous grassroots movement independent of the tobacco industry and its obvious vested economic interests, the greater the movement’s credibility and chances for success. For this, RJR paid him handsomely–more than $60,000 a year plus hefty bonuses. Not bad for part-time work.

But when he fought anti-tobacco measures directly, outright legislative victories were few and far between. Often he had to settle for delaying the opposition, putting up roadblocks in what seemed the inexorable advance of the forces arrayed against those who manufacture, sell, and use cigarettes.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend