Cigarette tax in Md. draws critic to state Smokers' rights group urging voters to reject backers of higher tax

Links to tobacco industry

Organization asserts it's independent, but documents disagree

November 01, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

As the campaign to boost Maryland's cigarette tax gains support, a smokers' rights group is fighting back with a feisty mailing to 180,000 Marylanders, urging them to vote Tuesday against more than 100 candidates who back the $1.50-per-pack tax increase, beginning with Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"The anti-smokers have come up with yet another way to take our hard-earned money and spend it on more ways to restrict our personal freedom," says the letter from Thomas Humber, tough-talking president of the National Smokers Alliance.

But while the alliance bills itself as a "grass-roots membership organization" of 3 million Americans and boasts of its "no-strings-attached independence," documents unearthed in recent tobacco litigation and the group's tax returns suggest otherwise.

The documents detail how the alliance was created and bankrolled in 1993 by Philip Morris, the largest U.S. tobacco company, and the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

One 1994 document says the alliance will "[i]ntroduce new arguments to confuse the issues and get voters angry." Another warns that smokers' rights campaigns should be handled by "Burson-Marsteller professionals" and not left to "locals."

Today, members' dues provide less than 1 percent of the alliance's budget. Of $9 million in revenue in the year ending Sept. 30, 1997, only $63,308 came from dues, according to its tax return. And some "members" say they never joined.

Humber does not deny that most of the money comes from the tobacco industry, led by Philip Morris: "This organization said on day one that we are going to accept tobacco industry money."

Humber, who presides over a staff of 20 in smoke-filled offices in Alexandria, Va., should know. Before taking his $450,202-a-year job, Humber handled the Philip Morris account at Burson-Marsteller and worked for Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson Tobacco.

Anti-smoking activists say the alliance's corporate backing and location discredit it.

"It is reprehensible that a Virginia-based front group for the tobacco industry would try to prevent Marylanders from protecting our children," says Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Children's Initiative, which says the tax would reduce teen smoking.

His organization, which will spend about $200,000 this year, is financed chiefly by local foundations. DeMarco, who earns $85,000 a year, has modeled the effort on his successful campaigns for state gun-control laws.

He has lined up endorsements for the tax increase from more than 300 state organizations, ranging from the Maryland Association of Student Councils to the Talbot Senior Center.

To his anti-smoking critics, Humber replied: "Frankly, what they say about us doesn't pass my who-cares test. I understand that I'm regarded as the scum of the earth. Would you take a job like this if you really cared what people said about you?"

Later, he sounded a bit touchy. "I have a background in the civil rights movement but no one wants to hear about that," Humber said. "I joined the industry because I saw it as a hell of a civil rights issue."

To illustrate that the alliance does have local support, Humber's staff asked 19 Maryland members to call The Sun.

"If they raise that tax, it'll hurt convenience stores," said one of them, Pete Phoebus, 36, a Salisbury truck driver. "I'm five miles from the Delaware line, so I can just drive over the line to buy my cigarettes."

Said Joan Brunsman, a Towson grandmother who can't recall applying for membership, "I don't give them any money, but they send me stuff anyway."

She opposes raising cigarette taxes because "the only people you're hurting are those on limited incomes." As for teens who smoke? "Arrest them," she said.

Charles Dickson, a 46-year-old Baltimorean who works for a Washington trade association, said he is certain he never applied for membership in the alliance and has mixed feelings about the tax. But he gets the "Dear NSA Member" mail anyway -- addressed to "Charles Dickerson."

Humber denied that the alliance pads its membership. Most members were signed up in 1994 and 1995 by paid solicitors who gave new members cigarette lighters and other gifts, he said.

"Anybody who gets a letter saying 'Dear NSA Member,' we have an application with their name on it," he insisted.

Any legislator who questions the strength of the alliance's local support will be in for a shock when the General Assembly takes up the tax next year, Humber said. "We're going to fight it every way we can," he said.

DeMarco said his group will be ready: "We are going to mount a grass-roots campaign like no one's ever seen in this state. They don't stand a chance."

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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