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Tobacco firms try back-door protest

Breaking a conspicuous silence, the tobacco industry has quietly begun to marshal smokers in the battle against a proposed ban on cigarettes in restaurants and bars statewide.

In a copy of an "action alert" e-mail obtained by the Globe, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company exhorts consumers to write to their state senator because "smokers and business owners in Massachusetts do not need big government dictating behaviors, especially concerning a legal consumer product."

The e-mails are being issued to people who have logged onto a Reynolds website called My Smokers' Rights, expressing a desire to be alerted when issues pertaining to tobacco use emerge. The missive from Reynolds provides a mailing address and phone number for contacting members of the state Senate.

"The folks we communicate with through this are folks who have told us they are interested in these issues, and they are interested in informing their elected officials about their opinions," said David Howard, spokesman for RJ Reynolds, the nation's second-largest producer of cigarettes.

The Winston-Salem, N.C., company would not disclose how many e-mails have been sent, citing proprietary reasons.

The e-mail campaign represents one of the few signs that the tobacco industry, once a muscular presence in state capitols across the nation, is attempting to exert influence over a bill that would extend Massachusetts' workplace prohibition on smoking to all restaurants, taverns, and nightclubs.

"I'd like to think that big tobacco is somewhat desperate right now and that they can't walk around the halls of Beacon Hill like they could for decades and defend the actions of these companies, and instead have to do it through these invisible grass-roots networks," said Lori J. Fresina, regional advocacy representative for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "They're really not doing their work in the light of day anymore, and that's fine with me."

The state House of Representatives last month overwhelmingly approved a smoking ban, and the Senate, which could vote on the prohibition as early as this week, provided a strong signal of its sentiment in May when senators included a ban as part of their budget bill. It was eventually excluded from the compromise budget package but was resurrected as a separate initiative this fall.

Neither Senate offices nor advocates lobbying on behalf of the smoking ban have seen indications that major tobacco companies or their well-known lobbyists are directly contacting senators, advocates and senate aides said. And while tobacco lobbyists either declined to comment or could not be reached, Beacon Hill sources with direct knowledge of lobbyists' actions confirmed that the industry has not enlisted their aides to fight the ban.

Instead, tobacco companies are attempting to stoke grass-roots opposition, representing a significant twist in strategy.

"I see the e-mails as being indicative of a last-ditch effort by the tobacco industry to maintain whatever pockets of smoking remain," said Bob Carson, the immediate past chairman of the American Heart Association's Northeastern region affiliate, which has played a prominent role in pushing through smoking bans in cities, towns, and states.

If letters, e-mails, and faxes pouring into half a dozen Senate offices are any indication, though, the industry campaign isn't achieving much success.

While senators are receiving dozens and even hundreds of pieces of communication on the ban, they are overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating smoking from bars and restaurants.

"We have had very few people contact us to say this is a bad idea," said Don Siriani, chief of staff for Senator Susan C. Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat.

Representatives for the nation's two biggest manufacturers of cigarettes, Reynolds and Philip Morris USA, argue that rather than adopting blanket bans against smoking in restaurants and bars, states should allow business owners to decide whether they want tobacco used in their establishments.

"We do not believe that bans are the effective way to address this issue," Philip Morris spokeswoman Jamie Drogin said, adding that the company instead advocates "reasonable regulation that addresses the concerns of public health officials but that also supports the rights of business owners to make decisions about what they do in their establishments."

Philip Morris has not engaged smokers in an effort to persuade legislators, Drogin said.

But the Reynolds campaign is electric with urgency, telling consumers, "You must take IMMEDIATE action" in contacting a state senator.

"You can bet that the nonsmoking majority will be telling him that this is a great idea," the Reynolds e-mail says, "so he needs to hear from you, NOW."

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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