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Grass Roots Activists Won the War on Smoking. Can They Win the War on Climate Change?

They can if they study the tobacco playbook.
Astrid Riecken/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.