Tobacco Sponsorships Disputed


CRICKET season is in full swing with Australia battling New Zealand and Britain in the Benson & Hedges World Series. The New South Wales professional rugby teams are building their muscles before next month's start of the season, which culminates with the Winfield Cup. And, only two weeks ago the yacht Rothmans was on television as the fastest boat in the Sydney-to-Hobart race.

Such tobacco company sponsorship is now under scrutiny in sports-mad Australia. Peter Staples, the Minister for the Aged, Family, and Health Services, is concerned that the tobacco companies, through their sports sponsorships, are getting around a ban on tobacco advertising on television.

Howard Conkey, a spokesman for Mr. Staples, says surveys indicated that Marlboro cigarettes received about $100 million in free television coverage for its sponsorship of the Australian Grand Prix, held in Adelaide recently.

Only last month, the British yacht Rothmans, owned by the tobacco company Rothmans of Pall Mall, appeared on every television newscast as it streaked out of Sydney harbor. Antismoking groups met the yacht as it sailed into Hobart, Tasmania.

To snuff out such incidental advertising, Staples is considering a phased-in ban of tobacco company sports sponsorships. The federal government could pick up the cost of sponsorship until new private sponsors can be found. Also under consideration is an additional tax on cigarettes that could be used to fund any financial loss to the sporting events.

Staples is currently working on the proposed legislation with Ros Kelly, the Minister of the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism, and the Territories. According to Mr. Conkey, they hope to finalize plans by the end of March.

Health groups maintain that there is a pressing need for action, since tobacco sponsorship influences young teens. According to a 1987 survey in the Medical Journal of Australia, young teens preferred Winfield cigarettes in New South Wales, Peter Jackson cigarettes in Victoria, and Escort in South Australia. Each brand sponsored the particular state's rugby or Autralian-rules football leagues.

``It's the best piece of hard evidence on the effect of the sponsorship,'' says Amanda Marlin of the New South Wales Cancer Council.

The tobacco industry counters that it should be allowed to operate as any other commercial enterprise. ``It is a legal product and we should be allowed to promote it as we please,'' says Michael Apps, manager of public affairs at the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobby based in Sydney.

Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and the Australia Capital Territory add a tax on the wholesale price of tobacco to fund health foundations. Part of the foundations' grants go toward sponsoring sporting events in lieu of tobacco company sponsorship. According to the Cancer Council, Victoria's foundation spends $30 million a year, while South Australia spends $5 million a year.

But the states do not interfere in national or international sporting events sponsored by the tobacco companies.

National sporting associations are concerned that they will lose a major revenue source. The Tobacco Institute estimates that the four major tobacco companies operating in Australia spend between $20 million to $25 million annually on sports sponsorships.

Even the antitobacco groups admit the tobacco companies are ``good sponsors,'' in terms of promoting the sports events. Some of the sports groups quickly come to the defense of the tobacco companies.

``There is no evidence the Winfield Cup promotes smoking among youth,'' says Greg Mitchell, executive assistant at the Rugby Football League of New South Wales.

Ms. Marlin says a lot of the money goes for promotion, such as banners with the cigarette company's name on it. ``They don't spend as much on direct sponsorship as you would expect,'' she says.

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