Friday, April 02, 2004

An anti-smoking activist provides some insight into a questionable industry

Some have stated early on in this debate that the anti movement (or tobacco control, as we in the industry like to call it) has limitless resources. Others have claimed that the anti movement is grassroots, popularly supported and honorable. I'll dispel both of these myths.

The anti movement, is funded in large part by the tobacco industry. As fewer people continue to smoke, or use other forms of tobacco, less money will be distributed to the states from the MSA or other separate agreements with the states. Given the federal government's budget, the Iraq War, the Drug War, Katrina rebuilding, higher gas prices, inflation, unfavorable balance of trade and recent sleight of tax cuts, the states are losing revenue from the feds for the states' coffers. States are looking to trim spending wherever possible.

Since smoking prevalence rates are falling consistently throughout the nation, most states are looking to cut what funding they provide to tobacco control advocates. The money states use to fight tobacco is dwindling. Look at the examples in Minnesota and Florida, along with Massachussets. These states have decided not to fund tobacco control at high levels as they have done in the past. For that very reason, tobacco control on the state level does not have significant funding in order to be limitless in its approach.

Some have stated that the antis are grassroots, popular and honorable. That is not entirely true. I don't consider a network to be "grassroots" when the members of the network are paid representatives of the parent organizers.

In my state, as in many states' tobacco control networks, we receive state funding (which is on the chopping block, btw) and we spread that funding to our friends such as American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and various other health advocacy groups. We also employ people throughout the state to serve on the counties' boards of health. These people we employ have large budgets to recruit others in their respective communities to fight big tobacco on the local level by enacting clean indoor air laws and conducting prevention efforts in the schools and community centers. While many of the "recruits" are not paid, there are incentives and stipends.

My network has a meticulous monitoring system in place and increasingly over the past eight years or so, more and more "recruits" as well as our local board of health representatives have been squandering our grant monies. In one instance, one recruit spent his $2,000 annual stipend monies intended for print shop expenses, materials and supplies on his personal home improvement project. Another recruit, who served on a local city council, spent his annual $1,100 stipend payments on his reelection campaign.

One of our board of health reps was in collusion with his recruits to steal grant funds intended for tobacco control advocacy.

Some of these ne’er-do-wells were let go (the local politician was not because he's partisan. I think he's still stealing from us). Regardless, these are just a few instances of the behavior of our "grassroots" participants.

Also, at the time of year when we offer new grants (to be used for local level tobacco control purposes) the phone lines and mailed requests for grants is overwhelming. The audacity of some of the applicants is astounding, such as the many restaurant association directors applying annually for our grants (restaurant association members are diametrically opposed to tobacco control advocacy). Everyone from farmers to race car drivers line up for tobacco control grants. Since our funding is now in jeopardy and we aren't issuing grants, people are now complaining where their money has gone. Some are about to give up their advocacy advocates in retaliation for ceased grants. So much for grassroots.

So, the point is that only when there is money available are tobacco control efforts effective on the local level. There must be a quid pro quo and our local boards of health representatives are paid in excess of $50,000 annually for their services. Yeah, it's popular, but only because of the pay.

So with this explanation, I'll now discredit so many on this response box who claim tobacco control advocates are all fanatics.

There aren't many fanatics in tobacco control. We are where we are because it pays us. It's just a job. There may be a few "true believers" in my organization, but there are just that...a few! These people are generally less educated than are the many others who work with me at this statewide tobacco control organization. These are the fanatics that you speak of and if they weren't in tobacco control, then they'd be involved in some other form of fanaticism.

But for the majority of the 250 or so employees we have, we do what we do because we are paid well to do it. No other reason. Consider that we're all very well educated and have very little opportunity in our state. Tobacco control work allows us to make a good living and gives us time to spend with our families or with our little side projects (I think everyone in my organization is writing a book on tobacco control).

My statewide network is very political, very partisan and quite consequential, not honorable. It's run by a politician and the state health agency is headed by a political appointment by a former attorney general turned governor, so everything we do is tainted with partisan politics. We really serve the incumbents more so than the general public. For that reason, cynicism is rife at my organization.

Also, the Legislature has targeted us for drastic cuts, a la the Florida variety. The Legislature can override any veto the governor throws back at them. Our days are numbered. We all know it and the futility of what we do is so evident each day at work. We're all looking for jobs. Most are looking to go back into teaching or back into law/legal research, nursing/medicine, etc. Most are looking into going back into private, non-governmental business.

We are not fanatics. Some antis are, but most are just getting a paycheck.

Response to questions asked of this whistleblower:

A few things here in attempt to answer some of the questions and comments posed toward me:

I'm a coward, or else I'd post my real name on this blog-response. I don't, therefore I am a coward. If I were to use my real name here, I'd be in the soup lines tomorrow (but maybe not...I know too much to get fired, but in any event, my bosses could make life tough for me if they knew I was trolling on blog sites and other forums and posting sensitive, internal stuff for all to see).

If I didn't have mouths to feed, I wouldn't work another day there. But to all: as soon as I get another job, I'll post with my real name and even start my own blog about my experience with the antis.

I'm not too far away from getting picked up by another organization -- probably insurance which is not a step up when it comes to ethics.

Yes, anyone can do the job. Really, all people do at work is waste time and money. We have all of these programs going on all of the time, but in my office, we really serve as public relations, research and program monitoring experts. The latter part is pretty complicated. Basically we have an elaborate system in place to make sure our grantees do their jobs, but oftentimes grantees are in breach of their contracts, yet there are no consequences for that.

Even in my economically depressed state with higher than average unemployment, not many people are knocking down the doors to work for an anti-smoking organization. About one year ago was the last time we hired people. We kept ads on the internet and in the state papers for weeks and we only netted about 16 resumes. Of those, only about six were from college graduates and of those only two were actually hired.

But those two that were hired are thankful to have had a higher than average salary for the past year or so that they've worked for us.

As for forcing smokers out of work, the organization that I work for does not do that. We flirted with the idea of giving commendations to companies that upped insurance premiums for smoking employees or canned smoking employees, but that idea got nixed since we spend more on advertising that we do on cessation services. We figured it would look bad.

Oh yeah, tobacco control as a "company" or government agency has really one main goal and that is to exist with full funding. So we spend more time on that end of the job than we do anything else, hence the over $10 million a year for advertising (and there are two ad agencies here getting rich off of us).

As for hiring smokers, well we have a few grantees that are smokers, closet smokers, of course. We have one board member who was in the papers at a politico's roast and the board member had an unlit cigar in his mouth, so I guess he smokes. Actually, in my state, it is illegal to fire people or make hiring decisions based on whether one smokes or not. when I was hired, they never asked me the question of whether I smoke or not. They did ask me if I believed in their cause. As any applicant for a high paying job would do, I lied.

On our public health boards across the state, these are facilitated by the state health agency, which my organization is a department therein. We employ people to organize local coalitions in their communities and these "grantees" are also required by contract to be a part of their local, county board of health. They are also given the task of coming up with their own "micro" boards or "coalitions" as we call them. They recruit people to serve (unpaid, but with stipends/incentives) with them and spearhead tobacco control efforts in their areas. Some of our reps are more gung-ho than are others. Most, however, don't do whatever we require in their contracts.

I'm telling you, after the MSA payments started rolling in and the Legislature and the former attorney general (now the governor) started this anti organization, people lined up down the street for a piece of the money. Hospitals, government agencies, police, fire departments, tobacco wholesalers, sick smokers, politicians and every advocacy group from tobacco control and health advocacy to death penalty reformers. We even had race car drivers ask us to sponsor their cars. That's freaking crazy!

Hope that clears some things up and I'll have you all know that I don't for one minute think that I am honorable at all. Actually, I detest people like me...I'm a sell-out and I don't have the balls to tell my bosses where they're going wrong. But hey, we're on our way out anyway.

Oh yeah, about the limitless resources....we don't have that either. Cessation services, which is what our focus should be but is not, is the most under funded aspect to our state organization. We spend more money on telling teenagers not to smoke than we do to help people quit. That's just plain wrong, but the CDC has this "best practices" guide that's viewed as the antis' bible and doing things contrary to its mandates means losing money from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Legacy.

It's all about the money, which is soon running out.

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