Introduction: The tobacco industry usually keeps its commercial and political communications separate. However, the images of the smoker developed by the two types of communication may contradict one another. This study assesses industry attempts to organize 'smokers' rights groups,' (SRGs) and the image of the smoker that underlay these efforts.
Methods: Searches of the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, the British American Tobacco documents database, and Tobacco Documents Online.
Results: 1100 documents pertaining to SRGs were found, including groups from across Europe and in Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. From the late 1970s through the late 1990s they were active in numerous policy arenas, particularly the defeat of smoke-free laws. Their strategies included asserting their right to smoke and positioning themselves as courteous victims of tobacco control advocates. However, most SRGs were short-lived and apparently failed to inspire smokers to join in any significant numbers.
Conclusion: SRGs conflated the legality of smoking with a right to smoke. SRGs succeeded by focusing debates about smoke-free policies on smokers rather than on smoke. However, SRGs' inability to attract members highlights the conflict between the image of the smoker in cigarette ads and that of the smokers' rights advocate. The changing social climate for smoking both compelled the industry's creation of SRGs, and created the contradictions that led to their failure. As tobacco control becomes stronger, the industry may revive this strategy in other countries. Advocates should be prepared to counter SRGs by exposing their origins and exploiting these contradictions.