Did Big Tobacco Spawn the Tea Party?

By Ben Feuerherd 02/12/13

The "grassroots" movement was the calculated effort of tobacco companies to fight taxes and regulation, a study claims.

Maybe not so "grassroots" after all? Photo via

The Tea Party may have sprung up from Big Tobacco's efforts to fight smoking regulations and tobacco taxes in the 80s, according to a study by researchers at UC San Francisco. The ostensibly "grassroots" libertarian political movement rose to prominence in 2009, gaining momentum after the 2010 midterm elections. The Tea Party "has worked to create the appearance of broad opposition to tobacco control policies by attempting to create a grassroots smokers’ rights movement," says the study, but it was actually a calculated effort by special interest groups, including tobacco companies. “Nonprofit organizations associated with the Tea Party movement have longstanding ties to tobacco companies, and continue to advocate on behalf of the tobacco industry’s anti-tax, anti-regulation agenda,” says senior author of the study Stanton A. Glantz. Co-author, Amanda Fallin, PhD, RN, adds: “The records indicate that the Tea Party has been shaped by the tobacco industry, and is not a spontaneous grassroots movement at all.”

Tobacco companies have also funded organizations like Citizens for a Sound Economy, a former political organization of the libertarian minded Koch brothers, who contribute funding to the Tea Party. The research shows that the tobacco industry has been long opposed to health care reform, dating back to a major campaign during Bill Clinton’s presidency, to add a 75 cent tax to cigarettes in order to fund health care initiatives. “Tea party symbolism is nothing new for cigarette companies and their allies, which for many years have been cynically using a hallowed symbol of American freedom in order to advance their own interests,” says co-author Rachel Grana, PhD. The researchers call for the organization to show greater transparency with regards to funding “so that policymakers and the general public—including people who identify with the Tea Party—can evaluate claims of political support for, and opposition to, health and other public policies.’’

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Benjamin Feuerherd is a city reporter at the New York Post. He has previously worked for The Daily Beast and NBC. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter