Banning Ads For Tobacco Might Slash Culture Funds


For a decade, a summer-long fireworks extravaganza called "Symphony of Fire" has sparked ticket sales at a Toronto theme park, Ontario Place. But promoters fear a fizzle if Canada enacts tough legislation curbing tobacco advertising.

Members of Parliament, who thought a crackdown on cigarette advertising would be a public opinion slam-dunk, were shocked last week as cultural groups rushed to the tobacco industry's aid. The distressed groups testified that the bill would dry up $44 million of tobacco company funding for cultural events - everything from tennis tournaments to jazz festivals.

In Ontario Place's case, the entire $3.6 million fireworks budget is funded by tobacco companies, which warn that next year's sparklers could go up in smoke if the law is adopted.

Race-car organizers suggest that the high-pitched whine of IndyCar racers won't be heard anymore in Vancouver and downtown Toronto if the new legislation bans cigarette logos from the cars. Then there's Canada's biggest tennis tournament, the "du Maurier Open," and the big golf tournament, the "Export A Skins Game." Export A and du Maurier are Canadian cigarette brands.

But Joe Volpe, a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Jean Chrtien's Liberal Party, is unimpressed by dire warnings of impending cultural collapse. "I find the whole idea that the government is somehow responsible for the revenue of these organizations a whole lot of poppycock," says Mr. Volpe. "The government didn't ask them to look to tobacco for their dollars. Our clear responsibility is to help safeguard the health of Canadians."

Still, he and others concede some disappointment at the unexpected clout of groups who rallied to the tobacco industry's defense at the 11th hour. That's because in the week before it recessed on Dec. 13, the Commons was on the verge of passing the new Tobacco Act. The legislation would severely curtail tobacco sponsorship and advertising. The bill appeared set to pass despite tobacco industry resistance and claims that it infringed the companies' rights to free speech.

But that was before the cavalry arrived in the form of arts and sports groups who warned of the demise of their cultural events without tobacco funding. Crowding into the hearing rooms, the groups were instrumental in winning a key five-week delay.

Disappointed antismoking advocates say the "fast-track" (turned slow-track) legislation is vulnerable because the industry and its supporters will have time to develop proposals to water down the legislation.

"This legislation is politically difficult for the government," says Heather Selin, a policy consultant for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, a health lobby group. "They don't want to ban tobacco sponsorship outright because they are not prepared to compensate the arts and sports community."

The reason for the tobacco legislation is that Canada has been without effective restrictions for over a year. The Supreme Court in September 1995 ruled that parts of the Tobacco Control Act were unconstitutional because the government had not provided sufficient justification for a complete ban on tobacco advertising.

BUT Canada's tobacco industry has good reason to fear the impact of the new legislation, if it remains relatively unaltered. This is less because of advertising restrictions and more because of future powers the law would give the government to regulate the manufacture of cigarettes, some say. "This is their real fear," Ms. Selin says. "I'm not sure they're really that worried about the advertising legislation since there are loopholes they can exploit. But this is where they are making their argument because it's easy to argue free-speech rights."

The proposed law would ban all cigarette advertising except in publications aimed at adults. It would also restrict brand names to the bottom 10 percent of all event sponsorship ads. But a loophole in the bill, Selin says, could open the door for tobacco companies to buy a sports arena, for example. They might then place enormous signs to make the lettering at the bottom appear in large scale, she says.

In some areas, the Canadian legislation would go farther than new proposals put forward in the US by the Food and Drug Administration with White House backing. Canada's plan would ban all tobacco advertising on billboards, street kiosks, store displays, and broadcasting. The US law would still allow advertising, but restrict pitches on billboards and magazines to text-only messages.

Still, the US proposals would go farther than the Canadian law in one key respect: by banning outright tobacco sponsorship of sporting and other events by 1998. The Canadian law does not actually ban sponsorship, Selin points out, but only makes it more difficult to get the companies' message across.

The Canadian legislation envisions a ban on all mail-order cigarette sales and on most vending machines. In the US, vending machine sales will continue, but only in bars and other sites where children aren't allowed. Mail-order sales would still be permitted under the US plan. Despite the tougher US approach that would prohibit tobacco sponsorships altogether, Canadian groups are still upset with their own government's less stringent proposal.

"The tobacco sponsorships are 40 percent of our budget - du Maurier gives us C$1 million - and the legislation would eliminate that," says Patrick Taylor, executive director of the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, a week-long annual extravaganza featuring the likes of Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock. "We did this just like the government told us to do," he says. "They said, 'Go to the private sector.' Now they are trying to take that away."

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