Fight over teen tobacco use moves into 'Marlboro Country'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Joe Camel lopes into the sunset of American pop culture, battles continue to loom over the future of tobacco advertising - especially for ads aimed at reaching younger generations of potential smokers.

Although 46 states have agreed to a historic $206 billion settlement with three major tobacco manufacturers, many observers see sporting events as the next testing ground for tobacco companies coping with new advertising restrictions.

In auto racing, there's the lucrative Winston Cup. In professional baseball, football, and basketball, advertisements are positioned prominently near outfield scoreboards, behind the goal posts, and just above the backboard glass.

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And then there's rodeo.

Here in the heart of "Marlboro Country," rock-jawed cowboys and picturesque cattle roundups still reign as emblems of tobacco advertising. And under recent legal settlements, most tobacco firms can continue limited advertising arrangements with high-profile clients.

For U.S. Tobacco, that client is rodeo.

For decades, U.S. Tobacco has poured millions of dollars into sponsoring professional and collegiate rodeo, chiefly to reach a consumer market for its chewing-tobacco products, Skoal and Copenhagen. So deeply intertwined is tobacco advertising with the rodeo circuit that many livestock owners who raise bucking bulls and broncos bestow their animals with the names of certain brands of snuff.

But concern about tobacco advertising on young rodeo fans came to a head this autumn on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman.

For a quarter-century, this land-grant university of about 10,000 students has hosted the College National Finals Rodeo - the Rose Bowl of college rodeo. Each year the event attracts 250 of college rodeo athletes, draws 23,500 spectators in the stands, and generates about $2 million for the Bozeman economy.

But in October, organizers abruptly pulled the rodeo from Bozeman after university president Mike Malone refused to allow U.S. Tobacco to distribute free samples of chewing tobacco on campus.

The move put Mr. Malone, a scholar of Western history, at the center of a debate over changing values in the "New West."

"The reason this is such a thorny issue is we have goals that conflict with each other," Malone says, referring to collegiate athletic competition, which has a wholesome public image, and tobacco sponsorship, which does not. "It's like tectonic plates rubbing against each other," he adds. "The university finds itself right in the middle of a cultural divide."

Malone says university presidents and citizens across the US have praised him for holding his ground. But a number of influential university boosters - some of them devout rodeo fans - have threatened to withhold their charitable giving. One alumnus, Dan Mortensen, a four-time world saddlebronc riding champion on the professional circuit, said he wouldn't have been able to get a college education were it not for U.S. Tobacco scholarship money.

Tim Corfield, who oversees the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association in Walla Walla, Wash., says tobacco sponsorship of rodeo is being unjustly criticized. "We will never apologize for having U.S. Tobacco as a sponsor," he says. "Tobacco money has paid for a lot of books and tuition."

OVER two decades, U.S. Tobacco has donated $4 million to the scholarship funds of rodeo athletes across the West. It also kicks in money to a National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association wellness program that urges athletes not to smoke, chew, or drink alcohol.

But Dennis Alexander of the American Lung Association claims that tobacco's civic contributions are a clever ploy to disarm critics. He sees a strategy by Phillip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, and U.S. Tobacco to target consumers in the inner West.

"These two companies, in particular, use the image of 'Marlboro Country' and the allure of rodeo to market their products around the country because they know it creates a mystique," says Mr. Alexander. "What is the new market that the tobacco industry has identified to guarantee profits? The answer is kids."

The tobacco industry, however, questions that research. "Do these people have any background in advertising?" asks Scott Williams, an industry spokesman in Washington. Still, Alexander claims the amount of tobacco money spent in the sparsely populated West is disproportionate to the amount of money the region's tobacco users contribute to the corporate bottom lines. The average age of kids beginning to smoke in Montana is 13 to 14, and for beginning to chew tobacco it is 10.

Mr. Williams, however, says it is not the policy of the industry to target kids. "There's ample public information that kids try all sorts of things, including tobacco products," he says. "We are all dealing with the problem of youth smoking."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimate that 36 percent of high school boys in Montana and nearly 40 percent of teenage boys in Wyoming use chewing tobacco. Both states rank among the highest per-capita use of chewing tobacco in the US.

At Montana State University, a compromise may be in the works to lure the national finals back to campus next year. Recognizing the value of advertising alone, U.S. Tobacco may be considering withdrawing its demand to distribute tobacco samples and would hang banners instead.

The university's Malone says it's a solution that he and the public can live with. As for the future of the Marlboro Man, that, he notes, may be a different story.

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