The suggestion by Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan that fans stay away from sporting events sponsored by tobacco companies met with cries of foul play yesterday.
TC Tobacco sponsorships can be found throughout the sports world, but the two major associations that come to mind are Philip Morris' Virginia Slims pro tennis tour and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Winston Cup stock car racing tour.
"Virginia Slims is a sponsor of 12 events in the United States, plus our championship and ranking system," said Gerard Smith, executive director and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association. "They've been a major contributor for 20 years and it's an association that has provided entertainment and fun to millions of fans.
"I can't comment on Dr. Sullivan's comments. He is obviously an opponent of the tobacco industry and that's his personal opinion. But we are sponsored by a legal, first-class package goods processor and we have three years remaining on a five-year contract. I see no reason to change or reassess our relationship."
Lutherville native and pro tennis player Pam Shriver agreed.
"It's a very complicated issue," Shriver said last night from Amelia Island, Fla., where she is working as a commentator for ESPN this weekend. "In no way is the Virginia Slims sponsorship of tennis a personal endorsement by the players for cigarettes. There is not one tennis player who endorses a cigarette.
"But since 1970, women's tennis has been very much a part of a marketing strategy. And what Virginia Slims has given to us, in terms of opportunities for our game, it is very difficult for us to criticize.
"I have a problem with singling out and trying to curb tobacco, because it is still a legal product and in a competitive world the whole idea is to promote your product.
"I'm not a big fan of having freedoms taken away. Everyone knows smoking in excess is harmful, just like they know eating eight-zillion pounds of chocolate every week isn't good either, but some people do.
"A boycott isn't the answer. Our product is too good to be boycotted."
Likewise, auto racing officials see nothing wrong with their sport's ties to the tobacco industry.
NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams said: "Over the years, motorsports fans have shown an amazing loyalty to brand sponsors. Winstonhas never gone out and tried to make people smoke cigarettes. The message here has always been geared to brand loyalty. If you smoke, then smoke Winston. If you have a headache, use Goodies Headache powders. If you don't have a headache, don't use anything.
"I just wish Secretary Sullivan would attend one of our events and see what they're about, before he starts making judgments," Williams said. "We've had three presidents attend Winston Cup races. All three were non-smokers when they arrived at the race track and all three were still non-smokers when they left."
Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for The Tobacco Institute in Washington, criticized Sullivan's stand.
He pointed to Sullivan's statement: "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."
"In fact," countered Lauria, "four months ago, The Tobacco Institute launched a multimillion-dollar series of initiatives to discourage kids from smoking. The day after its release, he publicly deplored them, even though he refused to meet with us when we asked for a meeting on those issues prior to their release.
"It is highly unusual for an official of the U.S. government to criticize and call for a boycott of a legal, free-market enterprise," Lauria said. "But we are a particularly easy target for him to use."
Lauria also wondered why Sullivan would specify only the industry's contribution to sports.
"Why not the contributions to the ballet?" Lauria said. "Philip Morris gives $100 million a year to the arts. A branch of the Whitney Museum is in their front lobby."
Philip Morris director of communications Les Zuke said the tobacco company is trying to be a good corporate citizen by using some of its profits to help events that bring pleasure to the public.
"We don't ask any athletes to smoke or endorse our product," Zuke said. "We only ask them to play the best tennis they can . . . Just because some people are unhappy with the selection of an event sponsor is no reason for all fans to be prevented from attending or asked to boycott an event. Freedom of choice should be the operative phrase, when making an adult decision to smoke or attend a sporting event."