Smoke Detector

Anne Landman has dedicated her life to being a pain in the ash. Will it make a difference come election time?

Anne Landman is addicted to cigarettes.

She's never actually smoked a whole one, but she can't stop thinking about them: how they're made, how they're marketed, what's in them, who buys them, who makes sure they'll always be for sale.

"People think I'm obsessed, a one-issue person," Landman says. "It's more like I'm wrapped up in a really good murder mystery that I can't stop reading -- except it doesn't end."

Landman is an environmentalist and activist who lives in Glade Park, Colorado, a tiny high-desert hamlet ten miles outside of Grand Junction. The town is so small that newspapers don't deliver to its roughly 300 residents and shopping is limited to a convenience store that sells little besides gas, cheese and lottery tickets. It is about as far from Corporate America as you can possibly get, which is the point: In 1995, Landman and her husband decided to build a life very much off the grid. In the sandstone plains of Mesa County, they constructed a plaster-and-glass, eco-friendly "earthship," a house made out of 4,000 tires with an indoor garden watered by roof runoff.

It is from here, in the middle of nowhere, that Landman has made a career out of watching the world's most powerful corporations. She is one of the most visible tobacco researchers in the United States -- and a professional pain in Big Tobacco's ass.

"I'm like a throbbing brain in a jar," she says, peering out from a computer screen covered with sticky notes. "I've got these tentacles out everywhere to people I never see or talk to. It's a very strange way to live."

A transplant from West Hollywood, the Jewish daughter of a doctor, Landman spent twelve years as a respiratory therapist in Grand Junction during the early '80s. At that time, the town was a rural, workaday community of about 40,000 -- one that sustained five oxygen companies, thanks to the population's smoking habit.

"It was the saddest, most tragic stuff, very tough to see," she says. "You had people who felt like they were drowning, just knowing that as their illnesses progressed, life would get harder and harder. I think it would have been easier if they just died."

But it wasn't until 1999 that tobacco truly changed Landman's life. While working as a regional program director for the American Lung Association of Colorado, she stumbled upon www.tobaccodocuments.org, which contained materials related to a multi-state lawsuit brought against the tobacco industry in 1997. A consortium of attorneys general representing 45 states, including Colorado, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, had argued that the manufacturers owed a debt to states -- and to smokers -- for the damage done by their products. They presented evidence that the industry had deceived the public about the dangers of tobacco and had aggressively marketed to young people.

The Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 resolved the suit for more than $200 billion over 25 years. The major tobacco corporations -- including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Philip Morris Incorporated, Brown & Williamson and the Lorillard Tobacco Company -- agreed to cease marketing to youth and to post online reams of documents that were unearthed during the discovery phase of the lawsuit. Smokefree.net, a web-driven tobacco-awareness organization based in Washington, D.C., compiled the bulk of the MSA data on tobaccodocuments.org, creating one searchable site that gave the public its first real glimpse into the industry's inner life.

Once she began reading, Landman was hooked.

"It was just so creepy and fascinating," she says. "It was like being able to walk into the offices of some corporate executive and opening the file cabinet to see what they'd been doing. It definitely appealed to my prurient interest. It was like looking up somebody's skirt."

There are currently more than 27 million tobacco documents online, from the mundane -- budgets, employee manuals, press releases -- to the damning, including an infamous 1963 Brown & Williamson legal brief that states, "We are in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug." And more come every day: The tobacco companies must upload their correspondence to the web through 2010.

Landman hasn't read every document, but she sometimes feels like she has. With support from tobaccodocuments.org, she maintains Doc-Alert, an e-mail newsletter highlighting material she's sprung from various sites. (Each of the major tobacco companies has its own documents site, and the University of California at San Francisco maintains a searchable archive at legacy.library.ucsf.edu/ index.html.) Several times a week, the newsletter beams out to 3,000 public-health administrators, activists, smokers, former smokers, professors and physicians in more than 35 countries.

"Anne is a passionate activist and a very tenacious researcher," says Michael Tacelosky, founder of Smokefree.net. "We've got six million documents on our site, and her list allows people to get bite-sized bits of it. Rather than learning the dictionary, say, you learn one word a day. A lot of people have gut feelings about what has gone on in the tobacco industry, but the list allows them to really see for themselves: pieces of paper, hard evidence, documents. There's a lot of power in her list."

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