Objectives. We studied tobacco industry efforts during the 1980s and 1990s to promote the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), a nonprofit organization, as an authority on indoor air quality as part of the industry's strategy to oppose smoke-free worksite policies.

Methods. We analyzed tobacco industry documents, conducted literature searches in Lexis–Nexis for background and historical literature, and reviewed relevant public health and policy literature.

Results. The tobacco industry provided more than US $6 million to NEMI to establish it as an authority on indoor air quality and to work with it to undermine support for smoke-free air policies by promoting ventilation as a solution to indoor air quality problems. Tobacco industry support for NEMI was not publicly disclosed.

Conclusions. NEMI was a valuable ally for the tobacco industry through NEMI's ties to organized labor, its technical background, and its status as a third-party actor. NEMI also helped the industry to portray ventilation to improve overall indoor air quality and smoke-free worksites as an either–or choice; in fact, both can improve worker health.

In the 1980s, the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), a nonprofit association of sheet metal contractors, and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) became active advocates for improving indoor air quality. NEMI promoted ventilation, rather than source control, to solve indoor air problems. NEMI made presentations at trade shows and conferences, published a quarterly newsletter, offered legislative testimony at the state and federal levels, and gave media interviews about clean indoor air.15 Although NEMI was expansive in proclaiming its indoor air quality expertise, it was less forthcoming about its financial support from the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry had a significant interest in undermining efforts to control the sources of indoor pollution, such as smoke-free worksite policies. It pursued this interest by arguing that ventilation could improve indoor air quality, which, it further argued, would eliminate the need to ban smoking indoors. Smoke-free worksites threatened the industry's economic interests by reducing cigarette consumption and undermining the social acceptability of smoking.68 Between 1987 and 1998, the tobacco industry (via the Tobacco Institute, the trade association for US tobacco companies) provided more than US $6 million to NEMI,918 which promoted the industry's message that tobacco smoke is a minor contributor to indoor air problems.8,19 NEMI's interests were also served by this focus, as stronger ventilation standards meant more work for sheet metal contractors and workers. Tobacco Institute funding for NEMI is shown in Table 1.

Table

TABLE 1 Tobacco Institute Funding for the National Energy Management Institute, 1987–1998

TABLE 1 Tobacco Institute Funding for the National Energy Management Institute, 1987–1998

Funding Breakdown
YearTotal Funding, $General Support, $Develop/Distribute IAQ Protocol, $Spokes- persons, $Promotional Activity, $IAQ Training Sessions, $Promotion of IAQ Legislation, $Federal/State Projects, $Building/Other Studies, $Media Promotion, $Other, $
19879180 000180 000
19889200 000100 00050 00050 000
198910205 000125 00050 00025 0005 000
199011620 00050 000200 000200 000170 00030 000
199112636 00030 000200 000200 00075 00096 00025 00010 000
199213790 00050 000200 000150 00060 000225 00060 00025 000
199314830 00050 000200 000125 00060 000325 00070 000
199415780 000200 000125 00060 000325 00070 000
199516850 000500 000290 00060 000
199617560 000310 000250 000
199717560 000310 000250 000
199818420 000420 000

Note. IAQ = indoor air quality. Ellipses indicate no funding.

By supporting NEMI, the tobacco industry concealed its involvement in policy debates,20 a strategy it had used before to contest tobacco control initiatives. For example, the industry sponsored scientists and consultants to challenge scientific evidence on the negative effects of environmental tobacco smoke,2124 a strategy that Michaels and Monforton describe as “manufacturing uncertainty.”25(pS39) With NEMI, however, the industry had a slightly different challenge. NEMI's technical background centered on the energy management aspects of building systems, not ventilation systems.26 NEMI's usefulness to the tobacco industry in the policy arena was contingent on its ability to develop a recognized program promoting ventilation to improve indoor air quality.19,27,28 More than manufacturing uncertainty, the challenge was to manufacture credibility for NEMI so that it could be an important advocate for the indoor air quality strategy. Through this relationship, the tobacco industry gained an important ally in its efforts to build support in the labor community for indoor air quality and ventilation initiatives, and NEMI gained the skills and visibility to penetrate the indoor air quality market.

The tobacco industry's role in NEMI's indoor air quality and ventilation program only became public after 1998, with the release of internal documents as a result of litigation. Public health advocates must understand industry political strategies to undertake effective policy campaigns. Thus, we used tobacco industry documents produced through the litigation process to examine the industry's efforts to manufacture credibility for NEMI, preparing it to be a key ally in their indoor air quality and ventilation strategy.

We relied primarily on documents available in 2 tobacco document databases, the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu) and Tobacco Documents Online (http://tobaccodocuments.org). We retrieved tobacco industry documents between June 2008 and August 2009, with established searching techniques.29 We searched keywords: “National Energy Management Institute,” “NEMI,” “ventilation,” “indoor air quality,” and “ventilation/indoor air quality strategy.” We also searched for Tobacco Institute budgets between 1987 and 1999 for information on funding for NEMI.

We reviewed more than 400 documents through these searches. We then analyzed 81 documents most relevant to NEMI's work with the Tobacco Institute on indoor air quality. We supplemented this material with information on NEMI and its activities obtained through Lexis–Nexis searches.

During the mid-1980s, the Tobacco Institute identified the public smoking issue as its “most difficult and persistent challenge.”30 The tobacco industry worried that curbs on public smoking would contribute to a decline in the social acceptability of smoking and hurt the industry economically and politically.68 The tobacco industry's initial efforts focused on discrediting scientific findings on tobacco risks and promoting tolerance between smokers and nonsmokers.3133 However, as support for smoke-free policies grew—and the industry recognized that the credibility of its consultants was undermined by industry sponsorship—the Tobacco Institute planned alternative strategies that relied on covert allies.34,35

In 1985, the tobacco industry launched its indoor air quality strategy,34,36 which was designed to frame environmental tobacco smoke as a minor contributor to a broader indoor air quality problem. The Tobacco Institute indicated that it would “refocus our efforts against smoking restriction legislation and regulation to a general promotion of comprehensive indoor air quality review and improvement.”36 The strategy was to include “a scientific front—especially some liberal Nader group” as part of a public relations offensive; a model indoor air quality bill focusing on ventilation, filters, and inspections; presentations to trade associations; and the mobilization of indoor air quality firms “to hawk their wares to government and businesses much like the antis sell their advice to business and government on smoking policies.”36

The tobacco industry recognized that its indoor air quality strategy hinged on having credible outside experts.37 The industry first recruited ACVA Atlantic, a small Virginia-based air conditioning and ventilation company.3739 ACVA Atlantic and its owner, Gray Robertson, received hundreds of thousands of dollars to downplay environmental tobacco smoke as an indoor air contaminant through testimony, advertising, and his own magazine.3942 ACVA Atlantic, later to change its name to Healthy Buildings International, conducted building studies to document air quality issues other than tobacco smoke.3943 However, although Robertson played a critical role in its strategy, the tobacco industry also recognized the need to develop an ally with ties to organized labor to enhance the legitimacy of its efforts,44,45 largely in response to public concerns about indoor air quality during the 1980s.4648

Making a Place for the National Energy Management Institute

The Tobacco Institute had already begun to build a relationship with organized labor through the Tobacco Industry Labor Management Committee (TILMC), formed in 1984 with 5 trade unions, including the SMWIA.49 Formally, the TILMC was intended to provide outreach to elected officials, discourage liberal and labor coalitions from taking antitobacco positions, build support for industry positions throughout the labor movement, and communicate with the public.49 Less formally, the TILMC served as a vehicle for recruiting support for industry positions from outside groups who might be reluctant to collaborate directly with the tobacco industry but were open to accepting money and other assistance through an ostensibly neutral body.50

Through its membership in the TILMC, the SMWIA was aware of the Tobacco Institute's plans to promote indoor air quality through ventilation and saw this as a vehicle to support the development of an indoor air quality program for its members.51 Susan Stuntz, a Tobacco Institute executive, noted, “We met several times with representatives from the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Union, [who] agreed with our assessment of the issue, and have offered to work with us through the National Energy Management Institute, a labor-management initiative of the sheet metal industry.”52 According to Stuntz, this initiative was part of the Tobacco Institute’s “intensive efforts to build and maintain good relationships” with labor, minority, and women's groups.52 The Institute sought support from these interest groups to influence public opinion and liberal lawmakers.49,50

NEMI lacked an indoor air quality background, but it had roots in the sheet metal industry. NEMI was formed in 1981 by the SMWIA and the Sheet Metal Air Conditioning Contractors National Association and represented 126 000 union members and 10 000 contractors in the United States and Canada.53 With a mutual interest in economic opportunities for the sheet metal industry, the 2 organizations formed NEMI to take advantage of the demand for energy management services spawned by the 1970s energy crisis.53 NEMI organized training and certification programs to prepare contractors and employees to perform audits and retrofits of facilities to improve energy efficiency.53 But by the mid-1980s, the SMWIA faced high unemployment, attributable in part to an easing of the energy crisis, and it sought new markets for job growth, including asbestos removal and lead abatement.54,55 Indoor air quality represented another such area.

NEMI was attractive to the tobacco industry because it could advocate for indoor air quality programs as a nonprofit organization without appearing to be an industry ally. In March 1987, NEMI requested US $ 241 025 from the TILMC, to be matched by the ventilation industry, to

provide for the immediate training of more than 1,000 ventilation contractors and journeymen apprentices in all 50 states. Training will permit these individuals to speak out on indoor air quality and to place ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] in the same context established by Gray Robertson.56

In April, the Tobacco Institute granted funding to NEMI.57 The Institute anticipated that NEMI's entry into the indoor air quality arena could “provide more data for the publicity mill on ventilation horrors of the sort that Gray Robertson accumulates.”58

In October 1987, Peter Sparber, an executive at the Tobacco Institute, reported that

NEMI has nearly finished training some 200 union contractors through its seven regional offices to conduct air quality audits much the same as those conducted by Gray Robertson. This work with NEMI effectively clones Gray and moves us ahead very fast.59(p31)

In a memo to Stuntz in February 1988, Ogilvy & Mather, public relations consultants who coordinated TILMC work for the Tobacco Institute, indicated that the support for NEMI was valuable in demonstrating good faith to labor:

TI's [Tobacco Institute's] support for this group was probably not fully anticipated at the beginning of the year. However, the flexibility demonstrated by the Institute in supporting NEMI to the extent that it did was admirable and an important asset. The opportunity to work with NEMI as part of our labor program moved us ahead in great strides. The imprimatur they add to our labor/indoor air quality programs cannot be underestimated.60(p3)

Manufacturing Credibility

Efforts got under way to establish NEMI as an indoor air quality authority and promote its services in 1988.60 Ogilvy & Mather noted,

By publicizing NEMI's capabilities in the indoor air quality field, their reputation as experts will be enhanced, making their presentations on smoking restrictions more credible, as well as providing an alternative solution to workplace smoking restrictions.60(p8)

The Tobacco Institute and NEMI each had strong reasons for touting NEMI as an independent indoor air quality authority: the Tobacco Institute to lend legitimacy to its message and NEMI to attract a share of the indoor air quality services market. In 1988, NEMI began publishing NEMI News, a quarterly newsletter that served as a vehicle for promoting its indoor air quality program.61 The newsletter was produced with support from the TILMC, and its articles and publication were overseen by Ogilvy & Mather.6264 None of this support was acknowledged in the newsletter, but some of the content was clearly meant to serve the tobacco industry's agenda, such as a cover story in the debut issue on sick building syndrome, which stated,

Several companies and local governments have pinned the blame for poor interior air quality on occupant smoking. A 1984 NIOSH [National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health] study of 203 buildings, however, attributed only 2 percent of indoor air quality complaints to smoking. Those who blame tobacco smoke actually cover up the real culprit—poor ventilation systems. Tobacco smoke is the most visible sign of an inadequately ventilated tight building; a building in need of NEMI's IAQ [indoor air quality] services.61(p4)

Walter Woodson, an Institute vice president, distributed the issue to regional staff, noting that “use of the document—through liberal and labor contacts—may help lawmakers and liberal/labor allies understand the real concerns surrounding indoor air quality.”65 He cautioned staff in distributing the second newsletter that “you will make no friends in the business community by passing this among them,”66 an apparent recognition that mandatory ventilation upgrades would not be popular with business owners.49

According to Tobacco Institute budgets, NEMI in 1989 received US $ 205 000 to develop an indoor air quality protocol and promotional materials, train spokespersons, and produce a NEMI video.10 The Institute's plans called for NEMI to conduct at least 2 “indoor air quality training seminars in each region”; “begin to market aggressively NEMI-certified contractor and technician services”; assume an increased “legislative presence at the federal and state level,” with accompanying media activity; seek opportunities for sponsorship of indoor air quality seminars as “additional speaking forums for IAQ experts”; and host exhibition booths “at trade shows, conventions, etc.”67(pp10–11)

As part of the effort to position itself as an indoor air quality authority with labor allegiances, NEMI formed the Safe Workplace Air Coalition (SWAC) in 1989 with the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest labor union representing federal employees.68 The Tobacco Institute provided US $50 000 to SWAC in 1989 to support indoor air quality seminars, and the TILMC supported a SWAC conference titled “Is Your Job Making You Sick: A Conference on Indoor Air Quality in Federal and D.C. Buildings,” held in Washington, DC.69,70 The conference, and a press conference releasing a SWAC-sponsored indoor air quality survey, received prominent media coverage, including articles in the Washington Post, the Washington Business Journal, Industry Week, the Washington Times, and the Government Employee Relations Report.7175 Ogilvy & Mather organized and prepared materials for the conference and press conference.76 The Tobacco Institute reported that more than 20 news organizations attended the press conference and more than 125 union leaders attended the conference.77

The Tobacco Institute increased its support for NEMI in 1991 to US $ 620 000.11 In January, NEMI testified in opposition to public smoking legislation in New Hampshire at the request of the state American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) labor federation, and NEMI representatives contacted officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, to oppose their proposed new smoke-free policies.78 Donald Lahr from NEMI noted, “As experts, we realize that smoking is not a primary cause of the problem, only a part, or more precisely, a symptom.”79

In November 1991, NEMI submitted comments on proposed indoor air quality standards in New Jersey, arguing that a requirement for separate ventilation systems for designated smoking areas was likely to be unnecessary, because “we have found that in most cases smoke can be contained if necessary in an area by eliminating and treating return air and providing exhaust.”80 In 1991, Powell Adams & Rinehart (a Tobacco Institute public relations consultant) booked an extensive schedule of television, radio, and print media appearances for NEMI spokespersons to publicize indoor air quality and ventilation, indicating that NEMI was gaining recognition as an indoor air quality authority through its outreach efforts.8183

The Tobacco Institute's Workhorse

NEMI not only afforded the tobacco industry an opening to organized labor but also represented a source of countervailing power to building owners and the business community, who were leery of the ventilation strategy because of its potential cost.84,85 Both factors became important as the Tobacco Institute began encouraging passage of indoor air quality and ventilation legislation at the state and federal levels in the early 1990s and faced the prospect of action by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the early to mid-1990s.8691 The Tobacco Institute in 1991 was interested in encouraging OSHA “to undertake a proceeding on indoor air issues” to “preempt and broaden a planned proceeding on ETS.”92 The Institute was conscious that “with a broader proceeding, we would have friends”—specifically organized labor.92

In October 1991, Stuntz informed the Institute's executive committee that a submission to OSHA was being prepared that would promote its preferred focus on overall indoor air quality and ventilation, noting that “the National Energy Management Institute will be our workhorse.”92 TILMC representatives indicated to the Tobacco Institute that the NEMI submission was part of a strategy to “express positions on OSHA's involvement in indoor air quality from a perspective outside the industry.”87 Such assistance was important because, as the Institute acknowledged, “Many [companies and public entities] are unwilling to accept us as a credible source of reasonable information.”86(p4)

To counter resistance from employers on indoor air quality, the Tobacco Institute recognized that it needed to “illustrate that the generally minor costs associated with improved ventilation will be more than offset by the dramatic drop in absenteeism experienced by companies that take steps to provide adequate ventilation.”84 To that end, the Tobacco Institute noted in May 1991 that NEMI “delivered a paper on the cost effectiveness of improving building ventilation systems,” which it indicated had been requested by OSHA “as part of its interest in indoor air quality in the workplace.”93

In 1992, anticipating that smoking lounges with separate exhaust systems might be included in an OSHA indoor air quality proposal, the Tobacco Institute recognized the need for an external cost–benefit assessment to alleviate resistance over cost. Assistants to Stuntz noted,

We would need to decide how much control the industry would expect to have over the benefits analysis. It would not be a credible document if it was known that the industry was behind it. It could be a task that is assigned by NEMI to an outside group, for example, but we would have to limit our review of the document thereafter.88(p2)

The Tobacco Institute in February 1993 approved a NEMI proposal “to conduct a study of the relationship of indoor air quality to productivity” as part of its OSHA-related activities.94 Notwithstanding its earlier statement about limiting review, the Tobacco Institute reported in April of that year that it had received the NEMI “study of indoor air quality and productivity” and had requested a meeting with representatives from its legal counsel, Covington & Burling, and NEMI to “discuss the draft and suggest improvements.”95(p1) The final report, released in August 1993, concluded that improving air quality through compliance with suggested standards of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers for ventilation for acceptable indoor air quality would produce annual economic benefits of US $54.5 billion (through reduced employer labor costs, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and increased product quality) and produce US $ 435 million in savings from reduced medical costs.96 NEMI submitted the report to the docket officer at OSHA in September 1993 without identifying the source of funding for the study or its own support from the Tobacco Institute.97

The Tobacco Institute continued to provide US $560 000 to $850 000 a year in funding to NEMI through 1997.1317 In 1998, the Tobacco Institute was dissolved as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement, and it is unclear whether the US $420 000 budgeted for NEMI in 1998 was delivered.18

By focusing policymakers on indoor air quality and defining ventilation as the optimal way to deal with problematic indoor air quality, the tobacco industry sought to undermine smoke-free policies. These efforts were most effective when conducted through outside groups, whose credibility was higher than that of the industry. Such allies had to be willing to tailor their messages to suit industry needs and be discreet about their relationship with the tobacco industry, while also maintaining sufficient independence to satisfy their own constituencies and remain viable entities. NEMI was a critical ally in this effort, making arguments about workplace air quality that were legitimate and appealing to an organized labor audience. But NEMI also served industry interests by downplaying the significance of environmental tobacco smoke as an indoor air contaminant and overstating the role of ventilation as an adequate and appropriate form of intervention.

The secrecy of the relationship between NEMI and the tobacco industry was a crucial factor underlying NEMI's usefulness to the tobacco industry. Just as tobacco industry sponsorship tainted the credibility of experts who sought to manufacture doubt about the science on environmental tobacco smoke,22,23,98,99 NEMI's authority on indoor air quality and ventilation was rooted in the presumption of institutional independence, as well as on technical considerations. The task of manufacturing credibility in positioning NEMI as an indoor air quality authority was accordingly grounded not only in enhancing and promoting NEMI's technical qualifications, but also in preserving the facade of independence that legitimized NEMI's positions.

NEMI's usefulness to the industry also stemmed from its relationship to organized labor. NEMI was a qualitatively different actor than the tobacco industry's other ventilation allies, such as ACVA Atlantic (later Healthy Buildings International) or the consultants who sought to debunk scientific findings about tobacco. Although the arguments made by these allies represented individual, ostensibly professional opinion, those advanced by NEMI could be seen to represent the voice of organized labor, a constituency that could influence Democrats and liberals on worksite smoking policies.

Ultimately, we cannot say how persuasive NEMI was as an indoor air quality and ventilation authority. But the Tobacco Institute was sufficiently impressed with NEMI that it invested millions of dollars in support over 12 years. In theory, public interest groups help to safeguard democratic principles by educating the public and representing the views of different constituencies on a given issue.100,101 The Tobacco Institute's effort to manufacture credibility through groups such as NEMI reflects an attempt to manipulate the policy process by hiding behind ostensibly independent groups.

A central irony in the courtship of labor groups is that the tobacco industry had no apparent interest in indoor air quality apart from its use as a political tool. By framing the effort to improve indoor air quality, an important concern to workers, as a choice between ventilation or limits on smoking, NEMI and the industry disrupted what might have been a strong alliance between occupational health and tobacco control advocates to pursue both better ventilation and smoke-free worksites. In recent years, tobacco control advocates have recognized that denormalizing the tobacco industry as a legitimate enterprise represents a viable public health strategy for influencing attitudes about the industry that help to reduce tobacco use.102 It may also be a viable strategy for tempering the willingness of outside groups to form relationships with the tobacco industry and provide anonymous cover for the industry in the policy arena.

Acknowledgments

This research was funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute (R01CA095964).

Note. The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Cancer Institute or the National Institutes of Health.

Human Participant Protection

No institutional review board was required for this research because it did not entail the use of human participants.

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Richard B. Campbell, ScD, and Edith D. Balbach, PhDRichard B. Campbell and Edith D. Balbach are with the Community Health Program, Tufts University, Medford, MA. “Manufacturing Credibility: The National Energy Management Institute and the Tobacco Institute's Strategy for Indoor Air Quality”, American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): pp. 497-503.

https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2010.199695

PMID: 21233427