NEW YORK -- Is the Marlboro Man about to kick the habit?
He'll soon be taking his last drag if Smokefree Educational Services has its way.
Today, as the Mets get set to play ball, 100 or so child and adult anti-smoking activists will descend on Shea Stadium to protest the Marlboro billboard that for the last nine years has dominated left field.
They want the ad discarded and replaced with an anti-smoking message. And they say they have backers willing to pay the Mets the same amount for the billboard they believe the team is getting from Philip Morris -- about $240,000. Led by Joseph W. Cherner, president of Smokefree Educational Services, the group contends the ads have a negative influence on young people.
"I see the tobacco industry losing 434,000 of its customers [through smoke-related deaths] every year," says Mr. Cherner. "The only way [for it] to replace these customers is to recruit children."
Mr. Cherner, 33, a bond trader for Kidder-Peabody, has recruited his own band of resisters. Eighth-grader Christine Whelan, a Mets fan who attends many home games, knows a lot of kids who "look up to the players. They are our heroes. But the billboard gives the wrong message."
With a year to go on Philip Morris' contract for the space and with legislation pending that would ban tobacco advertising from sports facilities, Mets vice president Jim Ross says, "We kind of have to wait. We want to be a good citizen. If legislation is passed preventing us from selling that sign, we would be wrong to sell it right under the wire."
Mr. Cherner started SES in 1988 with $100,000 of his own money. The group has grown to 2,000 volunteers and now is supported by contributions from the general public.
"We want to educate children. What adult smokers do to themselves is their own business. What they do to others is another matter."