Video: Big Tobacco's smoking-ban tactics

By Lea Thompson Chief consumer correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/24/2006 12:14:36 PM ET 2006-08-24T16:14:36

Petitioners are out in droves in Ohio. They are collecting signatures for "Smoke Free Ohio," an anti-smoking initiative they want on the ballot this fall.

But, just blocks away, a group called "Smoke Less Ohio" is also gathering signatures.

What's the difference between Smoke Free Ohio and Smoke Less Ohio? 

Well, you can't tell by the names. Smoke Free Ohio would ban smoking in all public places. If Smoke Less Ohio passes, smoking would be allowed almost everywhere — bowling alleys, bars, restaurants. The real difference? Smoke Less Ohio is backed by tobacco companies. But you won't find that anywhere on the petition.

"It's clearly a wolf in sheep's clothing," says John Seffrin with the American Cancer Society. "It makes it sound like they're trying to protect people when they're doing just the opposite."

And it's not just happening in Ohio. In Arizona, there are likely to also be two initiatives on the ballot: One called "Smoke Free Arizona" — backed by health groups — the other called "The Non-Smoker Protection Act" — which certainly sounds like it's in favor of a ban on smoking in public places. But it turns out to be almost entirely funded by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

And some of that money is paying for a professional public relations person who claims the tobacco industry is looking out for people who don't smoke.

"We're proud to have their support and certainly the industry's attention and focus on the rights of non-smokers," says Camilla Strongin with the Arizona Non-Smoking Protection Committee.

Butare the tobacco companies playing fair? When NBC News approached petition gatherers in Phoenix with our hidden cameras, they never told us they were being paid by cigarette makers. In fact, they implied just the opposite.

Petition gatherer #1: Do you smoke?

NBC: No, I don't.

Petition gatherer #1: Oh, yeah. Well, this is The Non-Smoker Protection Act.

NBC: So, if I am a non-smoker, that's the one to do?

Petition gatherer #2: Yeah.

NBC: So this is a good one if you're a non-smoker?

Petition gatherer #3: Yeah, this is a good one because I have asthma, that's why I believe in this one.

NBC: This basically is a ban then on smoking?

Petition Gatherer #3:  Yeah.

Well, that is just not true. If you really read the seven-page Arizona Non-Smoker Protection Act, you'll see it allows smoking almost anywhere liquor is sold.

So, why then do they call it an act to protect non-smokers?  Listen to this petitioner:

Petition Gatherer #4: They have to write it that way to get non-smokers to sign it. It's a political ploy.

"I don't think it is misleading at all," says Strongin. "And I would encourage anybody that signs a petition, just as I would encourage a voter: Make sure you understand."

"We are concerned because they have shown that they will stop at nothing and spend many millions of dollars to try to lie to the public," says Seffrin, with the American Cancer Society.

Health advocates say what really worries them is by deliberately confusing voters with these statewide initiatives, tobacco companies may have found a way to override local smoking bans across the country.

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