"Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air" Redux: Tea Party Edition

Got Science? | March 2013

Back in 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists published Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air,a report that shed light on ExxonMobil’s efforts to confuse the public about climate science by using tactics and personnel drawn from the tobacco industry’s disinformation campaign about smoking and health. The report struck a nerve and received a good deal of press attention because it presented hard evidence of ExxonMobil’s cynical strategy to attempt to use third-party “front groups” to manufacture uncertainty about climate science where there was none.

Now, new peer-reviewed research published in the journal Tobacco Control shows that a similar effort—underwritten by the Koch brothers, Philip Morris, and several other tobacco companies—conceived of and spawned the Tea Party “movement” as early as the 1990s to further corporate interests as an outgrowth of tobacco’s anti-science campaign to deny a link between smoking and disease.

Of course, it is not news that the Tea Party has received corporate funding. The revelation here, much like that in the earlier Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air report, is the extent of corporate leadership (through front groups and public relations firms) in the actual planning and launching of the Tea Party, the connection of the Tea Party’s formation to these corporations’ science denialist efforts—and what all this evidence suggests about the vulnerability of the U.S. democracy to such manipulation.

The Tea Party-Tobacco Connection

The standard origin tale of the so-called Tea Party movement holds that it began in 2009 as a grassroots uprising that channeled broad-based public anger against federal taxes and government bureaucracy. The new report’s research, however, reveals that Philip Morris funneled money through a front group to begin setting up chapters of the Tea Party as early as the 1990s, following much the same kinds of strategies it had used in its disinformation campaign about what was known about the health risks of smoking.

The story centers on an organization called Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) founded in 1984 by David Koch and Richard Fink, now a vice president at Koch Industries. CSE received substantial funding from tobacco companies from the 1980s until 2004, when it split into two organizations that continue to this day: Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

Among the key “smoking gun” evidence the new research presents about the formation of the Tea Party is a 1993 memo from an advertising executive working for Philip Morris. The memo outlines a campaign “[G]rounded in the theme of ‘The New American Tax Revolution’ or ‘The New Boston Tea Party’…” According to the plan, the manufactured campaign—actually intended to fight proposed increases in cigarette taxes—would appear to “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.”

Another eye-opening memo, a 1995 Philip Morris draft “action plan,” directs the company to partner with CSE “to quarterback behind the scenes, third-party efforts to launch, publicize and execute a broad non-tobacco-based attack” to fend off a proposal gaining momentum during the Clinton administration to allow the Food and Drug administration to regulate nicotine.

Documents show that Philip Morris considered the Tea Party work to be important enough to designate CSE as a so-called “Category A” organization for funding, assigning a senior Philip Morris manager to oversee the company’s relationship with CSE’s ongoing activities. According to the in-depth research article, CSE, following directives such as these, even bought the domain name www.usteaparty.com and built a website as early as 2002  (see screen-grab below)—years before the term “Tea Party” had come into common parlance or gotten attention in the media.

And, as the article shows in detail, CSE would become a major predecessor organization of the eventual Tea Party “movement,” with many early Tea Party activities carried out under the auspices of the CSE spinoff groupsAmericans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

The Importance of Transparency

The new research article owes its findings, in large part, to the vast resources of the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, a publicly accessible online archive of over 80 million pages of previously secret tobacco documents that were made public as part of the settlement of the U.S. government’s lawsuit against the major tobacco companies.

Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, oversees the archive and is one of the article’s coauthors. As he and coauthors Amanda Fallin and Rachel Grana write, transparency about such relationships between corporate funders and third-party organizations is vital to our democracy. “Greater transparency of funding sources” the authors write, can “allow policymakers and the public to evaluate more critically messages and activities of these organizations.” Unfortunately, such transparency is sorely lacking in the United States today, as undisclosed corporate and private funding to front organizations and political campaigns has increased since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The lack of transparency makes it easier for corporations to sponsor anti-science messages and to manipulate democratic processes.

Since the article’s publication, some Tea Party activists have expressed outrage over the fact that Glantz and his colleagues received taxpayer funding in the form of a grant from the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI). Glantz responds that his team makes no secret of the NCI funding and fully discloses it in the article. “Our work is all thoroughly transparent,” he says, adding that the NCI’s interest in the subject is easy to understand: “It is a well-established principle in public health that, in order to control disease, you have to control the vector that spreads the disease. Well, when it comes to many diseases including lung cancer, tobacco companies are the vector that spreads disease so we badly need to learn more about how they operate.”

In response to the unexpectedly intense interest in the article, Glantz’s team opted to pay to make the in-depth piece publicly available, extracting it from behind the journal’s paywall. “I hope that people affiliated with the Tea Party will take the opportunity to read the article because I think they might be surprised by the evidence about how much the tobacco companies’ real goals behind the Tea Party differ from their own libertarian views. Nobody likes to be manipulated by corporate interests.”

Plus, Glantz says, it is important to note that this is not exclusively an issue for the political right. “The tobacco industry has a history of giving money and attempting to manipulate civil liberties groups, labor unions, minority groups and even environmental groups to serve their interests.” In the case of the origins of the U.S. Tea Party, the work goes a long way to help disentangle the real evidence from the prevailing smoke, mirrors and hot air.


The home page of www.usteaparty.com, a site developed by the tobacco-industry-funded Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), on September 13, 2002. New research shows that CSE's successors, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, were directly involved in the creation of the current Tea Party.