WASHINGTON -- Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan asked sports fans and promoters yesterday to boycott sports events sponsored by tobacco companies.
He said that Americans should send a message to those "who would encourage our children to use addictive substances which will ruin their health and send them to an early grave."
Dr. Sullivan did not use the word "boycott," but staff members said that was only because he feared it would sound "coercive." He specifically asked that owners of all public and private arenas and parks stop letting their complexes be used for sporting events sponsored by tobacco companies, and he asked sports promoters to stop accepting tobacco companies as sponsors.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Campbell Gardett, said Dr. Sullivan believed that fans should "recognize that when a sporting event is sponsored by a tobacco company that it is being used to promote tobacco use and decide whether they want to support that kind of promotion."
It was one of the strongest attacks a Cabinet member has ever made on an American product, although Dr. Sullivan, an ardent foe of smoking,has condemned cigarette marketing efforts directed specifically at women and blacks.
Dr. Sullivan asserted, "If the tobacco companies will not adhere to this country's strong philosophy of voluntary corporate responsibility, then it is up to our citizens to provide the incentive in the only language they appear to understand -- the language of money."
Athena Mueller, general counsel with a group called Action on Smoking and Health, said the statement reinforced the point that there was something especially sinister in the way the tobacco companies linked the "healthy, sporting life with tobacco use and its diseases."
But Nathaniel Walker, director of public relations for RJR Sports Marketing, said: "I think our activities are accepted by people who attend these events. These sports are better today because of some of our money that has gone into them. Tobacco companies have raised the level of these sports. Also, we have a right to sell our products and a right to call attention to them."
Peter D. Work, president of the Washington Tennis Foundation, the sponsor of the Virginia Slims tennis tournament in Washington, D.C., in August, said his organization "would like to see a disassociation of tennis and smoking."
Dr. Sullivan, who issued the call in a speech delivered last night in Columbus, Ohio, said he took the action because tobacco companies had not responded to his request, made last year, that they stop sponsoring sporting events.
In his speech, to the First International Conference on Smokeless Tobacco, he said: "The disgraceful trade-off in America between profits and good health must stop! But it will stop only when our citizens rise up and say, 'Enough -- no more!' "