Worried about jobs, tobacco industry workers march on Capitol 20,000 PROTEST CIGARETTE TAX

March 10, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- In a mixture of grass-roots concern over jobs and corporate worries about profits, 20,000 employees of the tobacco industry marched through the nation's capital yesterday, demanding that lawmakers drop a proposed tax increase on cigarettes.

The two-hour march, from the White House to the Capitol, was capped by an hour of speeches by opponents of the tax increases, which are being proposed to help pay for health care reform. The most recent proposal would slap a 75-cent federal tax on a pack of cigarettes.

"I'm a common man and am terribly worried about my job. It's terrible to know you could lose your job long before it happens. We're all really worried here," said Mike Wagoner, a field sales representative for RJ Reynolds, the tobacco arm of food conglomerate RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp.

Mr. Wagoner said he rode in one of 145 bus loads of RJR employees from Raleigh, N.C., to protest the proposed tax increases, which he says would cause him to lose his job.

District of Columbia police estimated the crowd at 20,000.

Each protester paid $35 for the trip, organized by the Tobacco Action Committee. The fee included red plastic ponchos with the cigarette brand "Winston" stamped on it and protest placards.

March organizers were quick to emphasize that the employees had independently decided to protest and that their Fortune 500 employers were not involved. The nation's two largest tobacco companies -- RJR and Philip Morris Cos. Inc. -- have seen sales and profits decline and their stock prices slip in the face of stiffening government and private opposition to smoking.

Derek Crawford, a rally organizer and strategic planner for Philip Morris, conceded that the employees were given the day off for the rally, but said they were "chomping at the bit" to protest the possible tax increases. "They wanted to protest, so we let them," Mr. Crawford said.

The Tobacco Action Committee, an ad hoc group formed specifically for yesterday's march, was created by RJR and Philip Morris employees. Mr. Crawford said the protest was fully funded by the $35 fees.

Other evidence suggested that, while the demonstrators needed little prompting, the cigarette companies helped nurture their fears.

News of the proposed increase, for example, was posted on Philip Morris company bulletin boards, employees said, and Philip Morris announced that the demonstration would take place.

"The tobacco industry is scaring its workers to death with misinformation about the impact of a tobacco tax increase," said Kerrie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. "The job loss estimates the industry is spreading are no more believable than its claims that cigarettes don't cause cancer," she said.

Demonstrators carried signs saying that 2.3 million jobs would be lost if the industry was destroyed. Other posters said 31,200 jobs would be lost in North Carolina alone if the 75-cent tax went through.

A new study by University of Michigan economists, however, said states would not see a net loss in jobs or tax revenues if everyone quit smoking because the money usually spent on tobacco would be spent on other luxuries, leading those producers to hire more employees.

The study was of little comfort for the individuals involved in yesterday's march. Not only might they not find a job elsewhere -- even if the net number of jobs stayed even -- but they said tobacco has an intangible value. For many, it is a culture that they do not want to lose.

"People in my family have been involved in tobacco for years," said James McClinton, who operates rolling machines at an RJ Reynolds factory.

Fewer than half the signs actually mentioned cigarettes or tobacco. Many simply opposed taxes of any kind, while others claimed that health care reform could be financed by cutting government waste.

Speaking at the rally after the march, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said he already had 41 senators lined up against the tax increase.

The protesters also generated some spontaneous support. In addition to the 20,000 protesters estimated by District of Columbia Police, groups of smokers banned from lighting up inside their government office buildings stood huddled outside in the chilly rain, holding up smoldering cigarettes in support.

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