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Smokers Have Rights Just Ask The Tobacco Companies

Social Issues


Last spring, a Georgia State Senator introduced into committee a "smokers'-rights" bill outlawing discrimination against people who smoke off the job. In the ensuing week, the lieutenant governor's office got a flood of phone calls supporting the law. So many, in fact, that the phone system broke down.

A strong grass-roots response from the good folk of Georgia? Yes, to some extent. But these complaining constituents got a little help from Philip Morris Cos. When Georgia residents called a toll-free hotline, they heard a recorded message lambasting the lieutenant governor--who was against the bill--for interfering with smokers' rights.

PRAIRIE FIRE? The recording then encouraged callers to "stay on the line--we can connect you to his office right now, toll-free." Hence, the flood of calls. A Philip Morris spokesperson says: "We want to make it easier for consumers to voice their concerns."

The Georgia bill was ultimately withdrawn. But 20 other states have passed similar legislation. Antismoking and health groups warn, however, that these laws are not some "prairie wildfire among state legislators," as Walker P. Merryman, vice-president of the Tobacco Institute, describes them. Rather, they represent a campaign by the deep-pocketed tobacco companies to counter the antismoking movement. Replies Tobacco Institute spokesman Thomas Lauria: "These bills are put through by the ACLU and the AFL-CIO. The tobacco companies simply help smokers'-rights groups that have already formed."

Early this year, a bill that would prohibit companies from refusing to hire smokers or firing people who smoke was introduced in the state legislature of New Jersey. The tobacco industry hired lobbyists to get lawmakers to vote for the bill. Philip Morris also blanketed the state with support-the-bill letters. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. joined in, using videotapes, sample petitions, and slide shows to help smokers start activist groups. Ultimately, the measure passed the legislature, and the governor allowed it to become law without his signature in July.The tobacco companies also target big businesses opposed to smokers'-rights bills. Last year, the New York State Legislature passed a broadly worded law that would have prohibited companies from forbidding any legal activity off the job. IBM, Eastman Kodak Co., and other businesses wrote strong letters against the bill, arguing that it would let employees ignore corporate conflict-of-interest policies. Governor Mario M. Cuomo vetoed it.

Now, another version is about to be presented to Cuomo. This time, however, there is no outcry from IBM and Kodak. The reason: Tobacco companies are big buyers of IBM computers and materials for cigarette filters made by Kodak. Rather than risk their accounts, the companies have withdrawn from the debate, say state government officials and sources close to the companies. Neither Kodak nor IBM will comment on their change of heart, saying only they take no position on the bill.

Surveys show that employees are concerned about employers' legislating their lifestyles. Aware of this, says Joseph Marx of the American Cancer Society: "The tobacco companies are trying to elevate smoking to a civil right"--and taking care of business at the same time.Walecia Konrad in Atlanta

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