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Big Tobacco's Tea Party Ties Exposed

New study shows links going back decades

Tea Party protesters demonstrate against the US Supreme Court.
Saul Loeb/AFP/GettyImages
February 13, 2013 10:45 AM ET

Conventional wisdom holds that the Tea Party movement emerged as a result of grassroots anger against the government in 2009. We've known for some time that the real story is more complicated. An awful lot of big money, including from the infamous Koch Industries and other corporate sources, helped fund and direct the movement. But that's not all. A new peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Tobacco Control and funded by the National Cancer Institute, found that the Tea Party's origin story involves another extremely troubling major character: Big Tobacco.

In the 1980s, the study found, the tobacco industry launched a PR campaign focused around the idea that cigarette taxes, public health studies and other anti-smoking initiatives infringed on "smokers' rights." Anything that curtailed industry profits would be recast as an infringement on smokers by an intrusive government. Sound familiar?

In 1993, an ad executive working for Phillip Morris proposed that the Coalition Against Regressive Taxation form a new campaign that, 20 years later, sounds a lot like what we know today: "Grounded in the theme of 'The New American Tax Revolution' or 'The New Boston Tea Party,' the campaign should take the form of citizens representing the widest constituency base mobilized with signage and other attention-drawing accoutrements such as lapel buttons, handouts, petitions and even costumes."

The Tobacco Control study cites a 1995 memo by another tobacco strategist, calling for the industry to "quarterback behind the scenes, third-party efforts" that would support its agenda. In 2002, Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), which had received funding from the tobacco industry since the late Eighties, set up a website for the "US Tea Party." The tobacco-funded organization later split to become Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works – two groups still closely associated with the Tea Party as we now know it. According to the study's authors, both groups "continue to advocate on behalf of the tobacco industry's anti-tax, anti-regulation agenda."

Rachel Grana, a co-author of the study, put its implications bluntly in a news release: "Tea party symbolism is nothing new for cigarette companies and their allies, which for many years have been cynically using a hallowed symbol of American freedom in order to advance their own interests."

Of course, anyone who's been watching closely already knew that a substantial amount of Tea Party funding has come from industries looking to protect their own interests. But this level of long-term, direct influence is striking. And the tobacco industry is in a league of its own when it comes to cynical manipulation of the electorate. Recently ordered by a federal judge to apologize to the American people for years of deliberate lies about the health effects of smoking, Big Tobacco is not an ally anybody wants to claim.

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