Chain Smokers Link Arms?
By David Madison
APRIL 27, 1998: They're smokin' mad and some say they're not going to take it any more. But even as tobacco consumers bemoan tax hikes and anti-tobacco lawsuits, most of the hard-puffing masses can only blow political smoke.
Dan Cracraft wants to do more. He feeds a 20-year habit with cartons of Marlboro Lights and hopes to stir a political sleeping giant that's 45-million strong. If smokers unite, he says, then fellow fans of nicotine may emerge as a force to reckon with.
Cracraft's smoking activism heated up two years ago when he founded Freedom of Choice, a pro-smoking social organization made up of around 20 restaurants. Under Utah law, diners and grills that want to attract the coffee and cigarette crowd must belong to a social organization. Like private clubs serving mixed drinks, restaurants must sell memberships if they wish to allow a mix of smoke and food.
In 1995, after Utah banned smoking from most grub spots, a group called Smokers' Unanimous began selling memberships for $1. Tobacco-friendly restaurants signed up and smokers no longer had to huddle like lepers outside their favorite diner.
Then in 1996, Smokers' Unanimous raised its membership fee to $3 and Cracraft sprung into action. He founded Freedom of Choice, kept the membership at $1 and now represents 25,000 members around the state.
Still, Freedom of Choice is a social organization without an active political agenda beyond the conversation of its many smoke-friendly coffee klatches.
Jan Kenyon at DJ's Family Restaurant hears her customers complaining about the government making life hell for smokers. She joined Smokers' Unanimous and then Freedom of Choice because after Utah restricted smoking, she lost a ton of business.
Now, smokers and non-smokers come in for a plate of eggs, a bottomless cup of joe and the freedom to light up.
"Some of them are on oxygen, but they still come in," says Kenyon. "And some of them still smoke."
"It's like trying to take guns away from society," says Kenyon, sounding off on the recently proposed cigarette tax and ongoing litigation against the tobacco companies. "They say they're doing this to keep juveniles from smoking. Well, teenagers are going to find the money for what they want."
Forking over the kind of cash it takes to launch a pro-cigarette lobbying effort is another matter. It seems that, for most smokers, the smokers'-rights soap box extends no further than the bar stool or restaurant booth. Smokers like to commiserate, but few take their fight to the streets.
That's one reason why Cracraft must log-on in order to find other truly committed smoking activists. He plans to resign as president of Freedom of Choice this summer when the board elects new officers.
"The only way I'll stay is if the members get off their butts, which might just happen if the McCain bill is passed into law and the cost of cigarettes nearly doubles overnight," wrote Cracraft in a letter faxed to City Weekly.
For Cracraft, the $1.50 per pack tax hike proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) would add another $90 a month to his two-pack-a-day habit.
It's chain-smoking loyalists like this who could rally in support of the golden leaf. Combine a yellow-fingered, grass-roots campaign speared by the likes of Cracraft with the deep pockets of Big Tobacco, and it could take a while for the smoke to clear.
But so far, smoking advocates have not found a prominent place at the tobacco policy table. However, groups like the California-based FORCES, which stands for "Fight Ordinances and Restrictions to Control and Eliminate Tobacco," are gaining momentum.
Carol Clawson at the Utah Attorney General's office says such groups have faxed in their protests, but have done little else.
"There hasn't been a major punch herea ground swelling that indicates their opposition to the lawsuit," says Clawson. The A.G.'s suit, similar to those in 41 other states, seeks compensation for public funds spent treating tobacco-related ailments.
Tobacco giants could be on the hook for billions if they lose these lawsuits, and, as a result, the price of cigarettes could increase significantly. That's bad news for anyone with a habit to feed, but apparently not yet bad enough to raise a widespread rallying cry.
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