The ACLU has a long history of taking money from and supporting the tobacco industry

I was not surprised when the American Civil Liberties Union came out against the FDA’s plan to end menthol cigarettes, repeating baseless industry arguments that getting rid of menthol would lead to more police violence against African Americans.

Why? Because the ACLU has been carrying the tobacco industry’s water for decades. The ACLU has opposed clean indoor air laws since shortly after I first got involved in trying to pass them in 1978, arguing against he evidence that secondhand smoke was dangerous and that there was a right to smoke.

Why? Thanks to a series of reports in the early 1990s by legendary Washington Post investigative reporter Morton Mintz (Nieman Reports, Advocacy Institute) we now know that the ACLU secretly accepted millions of dollars from the tobacco industry.

In 1996 the NY Coalition for a Smoke-Free City summarized how the ACLU’s position changed after the tobacco money started flowing:

THEN (Before Tobacco Money)

* The ACLU did not oppose banning cigarette advertising on TV and radio.

* The ACLU did not oppose warning labels on cigarette packages or print ads.

* The ACLU did not oppose prohibiting cigarette sales to minors.

* The ACLU did not oppose smokefree workplace laws.

* The ACLU did not oppose nicotine being regulated as a drug.

* The ACLU did not oppose counter-advertising.

* The ACLU did not oppose tombstone advertising.

NOW (After Tobacco Money)

* The ACLU opposes FDA rules to regulate nicotine as a drug and place restrictions on cigarette ads aimed at minors.

* The ACLU opposes legislation to prohibit or restrict tobacco advertising and promotion.

* The ACLU opposes legislation for new, larger warning labels. The ACLU opposes legislation that would strip the tax deductibility of tobacco advertising. The ACLU opposes Congressman Waxman’s smokefree public places bill. The ACLU ignored employee pleas and a petition for a smokefree workplace.

* The ACLU does not believe that tobacco advertising entices young people to smoke.

* The ACLU does not oppose life insurance companies discriminating against smokers by charging them more for life insurance (three tobacco companies own life insurance subsidiaries that charge smokers more for life insurance).

* The ACLU opposes campaign finance reform that would limit soft money donations (tobacco companies rank among the largest soft money donators).

* The ACLU turned a blind eye to attempts by cigarette makers to silence whistle blowers, such as Jeffrey Wigand. (Nadine Strossen claims the ACLU doesn’t have the resources).

* The ACLU- NY Affiliate opposed New York City legislation to require counter-advertising on all City property where tobacco is advertised, even though the ACLU previously called for such legislation.

Soucewatch also describes some the the ACLU/tobacco connections and in 1993 consumer advocate Ralph Nader criticized ACLU for tobacco industry ties.

There are also thousands of mentions of the ACLU in previously secrete industry documents that you can explore.

The ACLU does many important things and often takes controversial positions. The undisclosed money the ACLU took from the tobacco companies certainly creates the impression that more than principled positions is driving ACLU positions.

The ACLU needs to stop sullying their reputation by continuing to protect the cigarette companies, in this case their ability to target African Americans and other vulnerable groups with menthol cigarettes.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

5 thoughts on “The ACLU has a long history of taking money from and supporting the tobacco industry

  1. Nice post, and with thanks for the personal blast from the past. I put the ACLU report together with Morton – I was with the Advocacy Institute at that time – and (here’s a little trivia) physically typed the entire report that you see with my own two fingers, since I never learned to type properly.



  2. Isn’t this consistent with the thought (paraphrase) “I disagree with your action, but I enforce your right to take it”? I am very much anti-tobacco, but I can still accept the ACLU’s position. I believe people have the right to smoke, but they do not have the right to subject others to their second-hand smoke.


  3. As someone who has researched the tobacco industry’s relationship building with African American leadership groups and as someone who has been supporting federal, state, and local efforts to ban menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, I’ve learned to dig a little deeper about organizations or community leaders when they oppose sound public health policies that address inequities and would benefit the very groups they claim to serve. When it comes to menthol bans, I often find a thread to the tobacco industry.

    The ACLU has a long standing relationship with the tobacco industry and has received large sums of dough from multiple tobacco companies. The ACLU opposed the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and, more recently, HR 2339 (“Protecting American Lungs and Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act” and sponsored by the late Honorable John Lewis). This latter bill would prohibit all flavored tobacco products – including flavored e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes, and flavored cigars. Among other things, the bill also makes critical investments in initiatives to prevent kids from using tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and help more smokers quit, especially those who live in medically underserved communities. The majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported HR 2339 at the time it passed in the U.S. House.

    As the FDA is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, as state and local efforts ramp up to ban the sales of flavored products, we can expect to hear more opposition from organizations that are directly or indirectly tied to the tobacco industry. Note they are likely to put out front as a representative someone who can help mislead the public about how flavor bans will increase the interactions between men of color and the police. With a majority white organization, they’ll use someone black. In a black organization, they’ll use someone with a history of fighting for civil rights (e.g., Al Sharpton, NAN), a retired law enforcement officer (Cheryl Dorsey of LEAP or John Dixon of NOBLE), or an attorney at a prestigious university (e.g., Jody Armour, JD at USC).

    Whenever you can help shed light on a connection between these industry front groups and the money/resources they take from the tobacco companies, the more helpful it will be for those of us working on the ground to support efforts that will get these products out of the marketplace.

    When we see op-eds that do more harm than good because the claims are not supported by evidence and there is a financial connection to the industry, we can use such opportunities to expose these industry mouthpieces. We can help educate folks to consider the source of “confusing” information and the money behind it.

    Dr. Valerie Yerger
    UCSF Professor
    Founding Member of the AATCLC

    Liked by 1 person

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