The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Grass roots activists won the war on smoking. Can they win the war on climate change?

They can if they study the tobacco playbook.

These climate-change protesters could learn from antismoking activists. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

In early June, President Trump announced he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. Even for an administration that has been flamboyantly dismissive of climate change, withdrawal from the Paris accord is the clearest sign yet that environmental leadership must come from outside the federal government — a major challenge, since the federal government has long played a central role in environmental regulation.

Many Americans wonder if there is anything they can do to substitute their own energies for the administration’s suicidal inaction. For inspiration, they should turn to an unlikely source: the tobacco playbook.

The phrase “tobacco playbook” typically describes the many strategies pursued by Big Tobacco to forestall lifesaving regulation: the constant mongering of doubt, misinformation and phony research. Big Tobacco, like Big Oil, waged anti-regulatory campaigns through industry-funded, third-party think tanks. They also paid millions to mercenary scientists to insist that “no scientific consensus” existed about smoking.

But the story of tobacco has a happy ending: rates of cigarette consumption have fallen dramatically in the United States. In 2015, 15 percent of adult Americans smoked, down from nearly 40 percent in 1970. The first sentence of the most recent Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking proudly proclaimed, “We have learned how to end the tobacco epidemic.”

This change was the result of local action by single-issue citizen groups. That is the real tobacco playbook.

Activists won the fight against tobacco by working on the local, not national, level. Neither the Occupational Safety & Health Agency nor the Environmental Protection Agency regulate secondhand smoke. Congress has never passed a Non-Smokers’ Rights Act. Instead, 41 states and 1,354 cities have enacted laws to protect the health of citizens. They did so in response to the sustained activism of men and women who argued that the government was not doing enough to protect their rights.

In 1970, a stay-at-home mom named Clara Gouin lay awake one night contemplating her family’s perverse generational bind to tobacco. Gouin’s father, a lifelong smoker, had recently died of lung cancer. Her young daughter suffered from a crippling tobacco allergy that prevented the family from dining outside the home.

From her house in suburban College Park, Md., Gouin seethed with anger at the large impersonal forces had so shaped her family’s experience: the wealth and power of the tobacco companies, the unquestioned social acceptability of cigarette smoke, the indifference of the law. Friends — especially mothers of young children — agreed that they could do more to wrest their community from tobacco’s grip.

In January 1971, Gouin hosted the first meeting of the Group Against Smokers’ Pollution (GASP), the first grass roots organization dedicated to protecting the rights of nonsmokers. Within two years, scores of GASP chapters sprung up around the country.

Determined to become “visible, vocal, and vigilant,” these activists sought to make public smoking socially unacceptable.

They had little clout in Washington, D.C. So GASPers set their sights closer to home — literally. They removed ashtrays from their own homes, a signal to smoking friends that they’d have to take their habit outside. They began requesting that their doctor’s offices ban smoking in the waiting room. They persuaded local restaurants to designate “nonsmokers nights,” demonstrating that catering to nonsmokers — a majority of the population — could be a boon to business.

They also turned their sights toward legislation. In 1973, the dogged efforts of Betty Carnes, a sexagenarian amateur ornithologist, resulted in Arizona’s passage of the first law that banned smoking in elevators, museums, theaters, buses and libraries. Two years later, Minnesota passed an even more comprehensive Clean Indoor Air Act that banned smoking in many workplaces, stores, and banks.

The tobacco industry took notice — and got nervous.

In 1974 Horace Kornegay, a North Carolina congressman turned Tobacco Institute president, announced gloomily that the “relative calm in Washington” disguised “stormy weather out in the states.”

These state-focused efforts threw a wrench in tobacco’s well-oiled lobbying machine. Since the 1930s, the tobacco industry had enjoyed close relationships with tobacco-state congressmen who wielded disproportionate power in the Democratic Party coalition. And with millions to spend on well-connected Washington lawyers, the tobacco industry wielded clout with the federal agencies that had the capacity to regulate the many ways that tobacco touched Americans’ lives: as a drug, a consumer product, a pollutant, or a workplace hazard.

“While we have not been routed,” Kornegay observed, “our losses are on the increase.” He was right. By 1981, 36 states had some kind of public smoking restrictions on the books. A decade earlier there had been none.

Action at the local level was even more dramatic — and even harder for the industry to combat. Berkeley passed one of the nation’s earliest antismoking ordinances in 1977 when it banned smoking in restaurants, but local smoking ordinances were not just for bohemians and health nuts. In 1981 alone, 35 cities passed indoor smoking restrictions, including Baton Rouge; Leavenworth, Kan..; and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wis.

Single-issue advocacy groups like GASP were particularly equipped to bring such pressure to bear. Unlike large public health organizations, GASP could take risks without fearing the loss of respectability — or donor money.

Bumper stickers and buttons with slogans like “Yes, I do mind if you smoke” and “Kiss a nonsmoker. Taste the difference” toed the line between edgy and crude. The estimable donors to the Cancer Society and Lung Association may have taken issue with the group’s media-focused political theater. But public protests, like donning gas masks for a Saturday morning protest, have long been the tactics of those shut out of the corridors of formal power — groups whose resourcefulness outstrips their financial resources.

Climate change poses different challenges than the tobacco epidemic. The act of smoking produced the result of death. Cause and effect were contained within one lifetime.

The scale and complexity of climate change, on the other hand, strains human perception. The effects of climate change may feel small in the short term, but are enormously consequential for future generations.

But as the experience of anti-tobacco activists shows, local activism in the face of persistent anti-science campaigns and well-moneyed lobbying groups can have a major impact. Led by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, scores of cities and a handful of states have already seized the initiative, pledging to follow the guidelines of the Paris accord.

Cities can function as incubators of future broad-scale efforts, and as vital sites of environmental protection. For example, cities have the capacity to regulate greenhouse gasses through energy efficiency initiatives — leading by example in public facilities, incentivizing private initiative and changing baseline building codes.

Since buildings are responsible for 38 percent of total CO2 emissions in the U.S., municipal initiatives could change the nation’s emissions profile, regardless of whether the current EPA administrator believes in the science of climate change. Citizens can begin pressing for changes as soon as their city council meets again.

In the 1970s, antismoking activists were outnumbered and underfunded. But by developing their own playbook — where cities functioned as both a site for social activism and a node of resistance against federal inaction — citizens cleared the very air we breathe. Today’s citizens now have a chance to do the same.