Then, in June 1997, the states and plaintiffs attorneys announced a sweeping settlement with the industry that included regulation by the FDA, including voluntary restrictions on advertising and marketing, and even a possibility of regulating cigarette ingredients that might have led to safer smokes. In return, the industry wanted some form of protection from lawsuits. New laws implementing elements of the settlement began making their way through Congress. It was nothing short of astonishing.
Within a year, though, the momentum had dissipated, and the effort to bring the industry into a new age had imploded. Though a settlement with states would be reached by the end of 1998, the broad initiatives proposed in June 1997 were replaced by relatively toothless reforms and a pile of money, which the states generally have used to fill potholes, meet budget shortfalls, and do anything but treat tobacco-related illness and reduce tobacco use. How did everything fall so far so fast? And why do so many other promising movements end in a tragic fizzle?
Part of the answer can be found in Michael Pertschuk’s Smoke in Their Eyes: Lessons in Movement Leadership from the Tobacco Wars. The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission from 1977 to 1984, Pertschuk has spent recent decades training consumer activists through his organization, the Advocacy Institute. In this book, he asks “how a movement propelled toward a moment of historic opportunity by a cadre of passionate, resourceful, and gifted leaders fell victim, in part, to their conflicting visions of the Good.”
He enjoyed a prime vantage point to view the shifting fortunes of the tobacco wars and knew all of the players on the activist side. Most of all, he knew Matthew L. Myers, a longtime anti-tobacco activist and a leader of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The negotiators of the initial tobacco settlement had chosen Myers as an honest broker who could represent the interests of the public-health community at the negotiating table.
Myers wrestled with his conscience over his role, but, ultimately, he entered into the negotiations, seeing them as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to wrestle public health reforms out of the historically combative companies. For his efforts, he was vilified by his own movement for trying to help shape a settlement with the tobacco industry.
You could be forgiven for assuming this book to be an arcana-packed snorefest that settles scores without providing truly useful information. But Pertschuk is a gifted storyteller who understands that the lessons he has wrung out of this nightmarish experience shed light on what’s been going wrong with many other movements. Pertschuk, who as a Senate aide in the 1960s pushed cigarette warning labels through Congress in a grueling game of inches, knew how incremental progress against the industry could be, and he thought Myers could help seize the moment and win advances that would have been unimaginable just a few years before.
But the anti-tobacco activists’ efforts to strike a deal were bitterly opposed, with the opposition falling into two camps. One, led by such advocates as Stanton A. Glantz of the University of California-San Francisco, argued that the settlement was an industry ploy, which would ultimately be a tobacco win, engineered by the best lobbyists and lawmakers money could buy. These advocates wanted to see the industry driven to bankruptcy. What’s more, because they believed Washington was a place where real reforms would always be co-opted, they favored local and state action instead.
The other camp, exemplified by public-health advocates like former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, believed that good things could happen in Washington, but pushed for ever stronger measures against the industry and higher taxes on tobacco.
Initially, the first group was the loudest, and it pilloried both the companies and Myers, accusing him of betraying the movement to which he had dedicated decades of his life. At one particularly low point, a Nader-related group calling itself Battle Against Sin in Corporate Society picketed the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, handing out fliers with pictures of Myers and fellow center official Bill Novelli that said they were “WANTED FOR SELLING OUT THE PUBLIC’S HEALTH.” They suggested that Myers’s group expected to make millions in administering the settlement funds–a lie that lingered long after Myers and the group pledged to refuse any such money.
Still, Glantz excoriated Myers in the press and in emailed manifestos to his online congregation. Glantz is rightfully a hero of the movement, having fought for and won unprecedented tobacco control measures in California, and for having brought thousands of tobacco industry documents to light. But he is a crusader, not a negotiator: Compromise, Pertschuk writes, is not part of his “emotional wiring.”
During the legislative process, the industry backed away from its original demands for broad immunity from lawsuits and ultimately asked for predictable annual caps on judgment payments and restrictions in some cases of punitive damages. But, as the cost of the legislation grew and the protection dwindled, the companies decided to withdraw their support for any legislation at all, thus dooming the effort.
Myers made many missteps along the way, which Pertschuk acknowledges. Early on, he did not keep important public-health advocates in the loop, leading to a heightened sense of suspicion among the anti-tobacco groups. “When the center was silent, Stan [Glantz] filled the void,” one activist explained.
Pertschuk sums up the inquiry with an elegant question, asking how “the collective leadership of the tobacco control movement, heroes all, nonetheless blew the opportunity of a lifetime.” He has spent three years finding the answer–and vindicating Matt Myers in the resulting book. If you are very, very lucky, you might have a friend like that sometime in your life.
But that’s not all Pertschuk was trying to accomplish. The teacher of advocates finds many lessons in the utter debacle of the tobacco wars. He cites the internecine conflicts among environmental activists and those who want healthcare reform. He also suggests that voters who chose Ralph Nader rather than Al Gore, out of disappointment over the moderate stands of the Clinton administration, short-sightedly chose principle over practicality. Underlying the whole sad story is a guiding principle that has gotten all but lost in this polarized society: Sometimes, compromising is the right thing to do. Compromise, Pertschuk writes, takes more courage than continuing to fight and argue. Sometimes fighters have to raise their heads above the fray and remind themselves of who the enemy actually is.
He quotes Jim Tierney, the folksy former Maine attorney general who served as an adviser to the states’ tobacco suits: “I believe the fight against the tobacco industry is as addictive as nicotine itself. The very best of public advocates, often in deep personal pain from the loss of a loved one to the deadly cancer marketed so callously by the tobacco industry, were addicted to the fight.”
As a reporter who covered this train wreck, I confess that it was heartbreaking to see so much come to so little. As the child of a political family who grew up in the progressive “half-a-loaf” tradition, it just pissed me off. Practicing “half-a-loaf” politics means actually fighting to win, even incremental battles, instead of striking an inspiring pose. Lyndon Johnson understood the rightness of getting things done. Johnson repeatedly weakened the Civil Rights Act of 1957 until liberals were in a rage, but he knew that this bill could pave the way for stronger measures. As Johnson’s biographer Robert A. Caro has written, Johnson knew “that the most important thing wasn’t what was in the bill. The most important thing was that there be a bill.” Or, as Johnson crudely put it, “Once you break the virginity, it’ll be easier next time.”
Since then, politics has polarized to the point that people disdain it and don’t want to get their hands dirty. Content with the beauty of purity, no one ever has to take the blame for failure. Instead, the fighters stand there in the echo chamber, hollering and admiring the sound of their own voices. The real question for advocates and those looking to make real change for the better is deciding when to cut a deal and when to holler–and not just do one or the other all the time. Pertschuk would say that the anti-tobacco movement–and, by implication, many others–has gotten stuck on holler. And it’s hard to disagree.