In Smoke Screen, Trevor Barnett, whose ancestors helped found the tobacco industry, is the protagonist and first-person narrator. Initially, the laid-back but straight-talking Barnett fears for his job, but when Terra, his employer, faces a crippling lawsuit in Montana, Paul Trainer (mentor to trainee Barnett) selects him as the industry spokesperson. Barnett, rather than Trainer, also becomes the scapegoat when the plants are closed until they get governmental concessions protecting them against lawsuits. Barnett’s Oedipal father tries to undermine him and later pulls off a coup that makes him CEO of Terra. Plant closings lead to the loss of billions of tax dollars to the government, jobs for union workers, markets for the subsidized tobacco farmers, and cigarettes for addicted smokers. Serbian gangsters kidnap a tobacco executive and attempt to kidnap Barnett and Anne, his anti-tobacco ally and eventual lover; their aim is to extort cigarettes from Terra.
When he sees on television the executions of the Serbian thugs (who he suspects were set up by Trainer), Barnett, who had vowed not to get involved, decides to become pro-active. With the help of union leader Larry Mann (who symbolically helps him achieve manhood), he brings together the warring factions (board members of Terra, anti-tobacco lobbyists, and the union) and helps get Trainer reinstated as CEO. When he rehires his father (who had been dismissed by Trainer) and orders him to stay away from the company, he becomes his own man. Later, when he and Trainer meet with President Anderson, he assumes authority and successfully negotiates with the President of the United States.
In an epilogue written two years later, Barnett reveals that he became CEO of Terra, found a replacement, made millions, graduated from a French cooking school, and will marry Anne.