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Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights: Anatomy of a Successful Grassroots Umbrella Group

May 17, 2016

Imagine boarding a plane after a week away from home at meetings in another city. You’re looking forward to getting home to your family and sleeping in your own bed. You settle into your seat and close your eyes, happy to take a long-delayed nap. You sigh and breathe in a lungful of… tobacco smoke?

Advocates celebrate the one-year anniversary of New Orlean's smokefree ordinance. Photo credit: ANRF
Advocates celebrate the 1 year anniversary of New Orlean’s smokefree ordinance. credit: ANRF

In 2016, this scenario would border on science fiction (or just another episode of Mad Men). Smoking is not allowed on planes. Period. In 1975, however, this would be your reality, and the reality of your family on a vacation or family visit. If your son or daughter had asthma, you would have had two choices: Stay at home or drive to your destination.

In 1965, the adult smoking rate was 42.4% in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By 2014, that rate had been cut by almost two-thirds: 16.8% of adults smoked, and smoking rates continue to decline today. Eight states had smoking rates of under 15%, including California at 12.8%, Puerto Rico at 11.3%, and Utah at 9.7%. Tobacco control is one of the greatest public health success stories in history thanks to the powerful grassroots nonsmokers’ rights movement.

Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANR), along with its sister organization the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF),* has been leading the charge against the tobacco industry and protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke since 1976. They started out as a small group of concerned citizens who were tired of breathing other people’s tobacco smoke in the workplace and public places such as restaurants and airplanes. Today, advocates across the country turn to ANR and ANRF for support for their grassroots efforts to promote smokefree air.


The movement for smokefree air began in the 1970s. Concerned citizens across the country formed small, grassroots organizations such as the Maryland Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP), the Minnesota Association for Nonsmokers (ANSR), and Aspen GASP. In 1981, dozens of local GASP groups in California joined together to form a statewide coalition, Californians for Nonsmokers’ Rights (CNR). CNR lead the grassroots movement against tobacco in the state. After failing to overcome the power and wealth of the tobacco industry in the California legislature, they shifted to promoting local ordinances for clean indoor air. They ran successful grassroots campaigns in San Francisco and Los Angeles, successfully passing strong smokefree workplace ordinances and defeating the tobacco industry.

By 1985, CNR had captured the attention of both advocates from other states and the media. Advocates saw the successes in California and wanted to replicate them in their home states. CNR was asked to provide training and technical assistance to groups outside of California working on their own campaigns. These requests from other states were the impetus for CNR becoming ANR, and the umbrella group for the national smokefree air movement in the US and, ultimately, internationally.

“It happened naturally, but there was a void in the national grassroots leadership. In the early 1980’s, the leadership in the national anti-tobacco movement came from organizations that were decidedly not grassroots. They were focused on working inside the Beltway. But by the mid-1980s, California had been successful in fighting the tobacco industry and it was a very natural evolution for CNR to become ANR. At that time, there were hundreds of state and local “GASP” groups, very grassroots and mostly volunteer-run. But there was no national umbrella organization. So, it was a conscious decision in filling the void,” said Mark Pertschuk, a former ANR executive director and board president.

The Smokefree Movement Today

Today, ANR is celebrating 40 years of success in changing policy and social norms surrounding smoking and the tobacco industry. As of April 2016, there are 4,523 municipalities with smokefree laws of one kind or another. With a staff of 17 and two consultants, ANR continues to advocate for smokefree policies at the local, state, and national levels and support other groups to do the same.

ANR also monitors and tracks the tobacco industry’s tactics to undermine grassroots movements, primarily preemption, and shares that information with their membership base. Their sister organization, the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF) educates youth about tobacco addiction and fosters the next generation of grassroots smokefree advocates.

Advocates recognize ANR as a leader in the national smokefree movement and often turn to ANR/F for training and technical assistance. According to Pertschuk, ANR is a successful model for other grassroots support groups.

“An effective grassroots umbrella group can be national in scope, but it can also be statewide or even international. It may have its own grassroots or membership base that looks to the support group for leadership and coordination. It provides a conscious and intentional network, support, and communications role for its grassroots base. It provides informed and experience-based strategic direction. It has earned its legitimacy among the grassroots by listening to people and acting on what they want. First and foremost, an authentic grassroots movement is always bottom-up, not top-down, so an effective umbrella group gets its marching orders from the grassroots, not vice versa,” said Pertschuk.

ANR does this and more. Cynthia Hallett, President and CEO of ANR, describes ANR as an “industry watchdog.” Their Tobacco Industry Tracking Database provides insight into tobacco industry tactics and key players used by the tobacco industry such as PR firms. ANR collects newspaper and magazine articles, video, trade journals, and other materials to track and expose the tobacco industry’s tactics. Advocates can search the database for front group names or industry researchers and spokespersons.

Cynthia Hallet, CEO and President of ANR/F
Cynthia Hallet, CEO & President, ANR/F

ANR monitors and analyzes smokefree legislation across the country. Their U.S. Tobacco Control Laws Database is a collection of tobacco control ordinances dating back to the 1980s and is often a starting point for advocates working on smokefree air. Advocates can go to ANR for local model ordinances as well as technical assistance. For example, ANR often reviews draft laws prior to introduction so that there aren’t any inadvertent exemptions. They also analyze state bills to ensure, among other things, that they don’t contain preemptive language.

“The industry is very sneaky and continues to lobby states to preempt any local activity on smokefree, and they’ve expanded that to other issues. ANR is adept at being able to recognize preemptive language and able to provide technical assistance to the coalition or policy makers to avoid policy pitfalls. People know that they can call us,” said Hallett.

In addition to being an industry watchdog, ANR brings together advocates to foster connection and innovation. ANR’s Clearing the Air Institute is a grassroots convening of leaders from across the country working on smokefree air. The convening brings together advocates from local, state, and federal agencies and funders to discuss smokefree policies, the tobacco industry, and related topics such as preemption and e-cigarettes. It is an intimate space for leaders to share resources and set a national agenda for the smokefree movement. In April 2016, ANR hosted their 10th Clearing the Air Institute in New Orleans.

Past Clearing the Air Institutes have led to major victories in the passage of local ordinances and research for the smokefree movement. Hallett shares one example:

“Some amazing things happen at these small conferences. We had someone from Montana come to one of our institutes and say, ‘You know, I’ve got a couple of emergency room doctors that are seeing fewer people come in with heart attacks after Helena went smokefree. We want to have someone look at the data.’ And sure enough, Stan Glantz from UCSF Medical School was there and between Dr. Glantz, the Montana doctors, and ANR, we looked at the data and the Helena Heart Attack study was the result.  It was the first of what ultimately became many studies looking at the decline of acute myocardial infarction after the implementation of a smokefree law. It was landmark research and it became an international standard,” said Hallett.

The Future of the Smokefree Movement

While the smokefree movement has accomplished a lot in the past four decades, there are still gaps in smokefree protections.  And one of the key lessons learned from ANR’s experience is that the tobacco industry never gives up and it continues to adapt to changing environments.

According to Cynthia Hallett, “[The industry] has historically targeted certain communities – youth, communities of color, the poor – to use tobacco products. For example, RJ Reynolds created ‘Project SCUM’ where they planned to target the LGBT and homeless communities in San Francisco. And this behavior by the industry has not changed.  It continues to identify the disenfranchised and shamelessly takes advantage of those communities.”

“Additionally, the industry continues to fight for exemptions in laws – directly or indirectly through front groups.  As a result, workers in many bars, casinos, and other workplaces are still exposed to secondhand smoke.  If you look at the data, we still have 50 percent of the U.S. population that works or lives in a city or state that doesn’t have a 100 percent smokefree workplace, restaurant, or bar law,” Hallett said.

ANR is actively working to close those gaps. ANR has worked with casinos across the country, including tribal casinos, to advocate for smokefree policies.  One of those casinos is Harrah’s in New Orleans. A strong grassroots movement of public health advocates, musicians, casino workers, doctors, and others pushed for a comprehensive smokefree workplace law in New Orleans and won.

ANR also remains at the forefront of the issue of vaping, or “e-cigarettes,” the tobacco industry’s newest tactic to addict another generation to nicotine. Their fact sheet on e-cigarettes and secondhand aerosol is a tool for advocates trying to protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand aerosol in their communities and prevent young people from being lured into using these unregulated products.

The Need for Umbrella Grassroots Groups for Other Grassroots Movements

While ANR has been successful in supporting and coordinating the national smokefree air movement, the need for effective grassroots support groups is not unique to the movement for smokefree air. Movements need strategy, resources, networks, and communications to advance their vision and achieve social change. Grassroots support groups like ANR see the “big picture” and can assess the landscape and connect national, statewide, and local groups to help them build their own power and capacity.

Hallett has this advice for grassroots umbrella groups addressing other issues: “You need to think about your unique area of expertise. What is the need in the field, what is the gap in the services that you want to provide, what is your niche, and what are you going to provide to people in order to accomplish your public health policy goals? In the 1980s, ANR was the first to publish a guide on how to draft and pass a smokefree law. That guide was a couple of pieces of paper, turned into a booklet, and now it’s become full-scale trainings. It’s about understanding your grassroots base and their needs, how the opposition operates, as well as the political climate in which you are working. And we continue to do that today, when we look and see where work still needs to be done and what assistance advocates and leaders need to succeed.”

*ANR is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit lobbing group while ANRF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization.