Virginia Slims tennis tournament - linking smoking and sports?

Billie Jean King came to Boston thinking she was promoting a tennis tournament. Instead, she found herself in the middle of a controversy over the tour's new sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes.

At a lavish Feb. 8 press conference called to announce the Boston stop on the tour, members of the Massachusetts chapter of GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution) protested the cigarette company's involvement. In a question to Mrs. King, GASP president Rita Addison asked the former Wimbledon champion how she could justify promoting the event when many prominent women and women's groups ''object to the blatant attempt by Virginia Slims cigarettes to link tobacco smoking with women's rights and athletic success''?

''We feel this is a misuse at least, and a prostitution at most, of the reputation that she's built,'' the GASP president told the Monitor just before the press conference. The logo for the tour, she pointed out, shows a woman holding a tennis racket in one hand and a cigarette in the other. ''Ask yourself ,'' she says, '' 'Why does Virginia Slims want to be involved (in the women's tennis circuit)? They want to link smoking and sports.''

Not so, says Ellen Merlo, director of marketing communications for Philip Morris U.S.A., which makes Virginia Slims. She notes that the company had earlier sponsored the tour from 1971 to 1978. ''When we get involved in any promotion, it's obviously to create a greater visibility for our brand name,'' she says. ''But we have never, ever asked a player to endorse our product.''

In her answer to GASP's question, Mrs. King, a driving force behind the success of women's tennis as a player and promoter, said that though she does not smoke ''I believe in the free enterprise system. . . . It's up to the woman herself to make that choice whether to smoke or not smoke. . . . The most important thing is that we're well-informed and that we make our own decision.''

Although both Mrs. King and Ms. Merlo denied that Mrs. King's appearance represented an endorsement of cigarettes, earlier in the press conference Ms. Merlo told the audience that ''we (Virginia Slims) wouldn't be here if it weren't for Billie Jean King. . . . As a sponsor, it's always a pleasure to be associated with her.''

In a statement released by GASP, Mary Ann Cromer of the American Medical Women's Association called ''attempts to glamorize smoking and equate it with liberation . . . both an insult and a disservice to women's sports and women's rights efforts.''

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