Anti-smoking advocates call foul

Hoop-It-Up: Popular tourney bans smoking-prevention booths after NBA dumps its tobacco sponsor.

August 21, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It was a slam-dunk for anti-smoking groups when the National Basketball Association announced this summer that it had dropped Lorillard Tobacco Co. as a sponsor of its popular Hoop-It-Up tournament, which comes to Mondawmin Mall this weekend.

But now the groups are calling foul. Hoop-It-Up, for players 8 and older, has banned all smoking-prevention programs from the tournament.

Smoke Free Maryland, which had planned to co-sponsor a booth at the event with the Baltimore Health Department, was informed yesterday that it would not be allowed to rent space.

"Banning a public health group from a public event is pretty bad," said Kari Appler, director of Smoke Free Maryland, the state's largest anti-tobacco group. "And we were actually going to hand out literature congratulating the NBA on severing their relationship with the tobacco industry."

A Hoop-It-Up executive confirmed last night that anti-smoking groups will not be allowed to exhibit at tournament sites for the rest of this year.

"If they wanted to promote eating healthy and working out, that would have been perfect," said Chaney Muench, vice president of NBA Hoop-It-Up at Host Communications, which runs the tournament for the NBA. "But we're not doing tobacco prevention."

Muench denied that the decision was influenced by Lorillard, saying the NBA ended its contract with the company July 31. But she declined to explain the ban.

"We just are not going to touch that [anti-smoking] category for the rest of the year," she said. "People can take it for what they want."

Behind the dust-up is a national dispute over youth-smoking prevention programs created in recent years by the major cigarette manufacturers.

Eager to improve images bruised by a barrage of lawsuits, tobacco companies have created programs that ostensibly seek to discourage teens from smoking - even as the companies spend heavily to market cigarettes to people in their early 20s.

Public health advocates, backed by several academic studies, have attacked the programs as ineffective at best.

Lorillard's sponsorship of Hoop-It-Up involved the company's youth-smoking prevention program, called "Tobacco is Whacko if You're a Teen."

The company agreed last year to become a major sponsor of the 2002 Hoop-It-Up, giving away lanyards and other items with the "Tobacco is Whacko" slogan, said Steve Watson, a Lorillard spokesman in Greensboro, N.C.

But July 19, leaders of four health groups - the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids - wrote to NBA Commissioner David Stern urging him to end the relationship with Lorillard.

"Lorillard's Newport brand is smoked by 80 percent of African-American youth who smoke, an astounding market share that was not achieved by accident," the letter stated. "The `Tobacco is Whacko ... If You're a Teen' slogan frames smoking as an adult activity, which, as any parent knows, and tobacco industry internal documents recognize, is one of the most effective ways to tempt rebellious teens to try something."

Twelve days later, the NBA ended the contract.

Watson, the Lorillard spokesman, said testing has found the "Tobacco is Whacko" campaign to be "highly effective" in teaching teens to resist pressure to smoke. The fourth-largest U.S. cigarette maker, Lorillard spends $15 million a year on youth-smoking prevention and was deeply disappointed that the NBA chose to cut its ties, he said.

"We were shocked and find it very regrettable that the NBA decided to take this action," he said. He blamed "misinformation" spread by anti-smoking groups.

But Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, decried Hoop-It-Up's decision to exclude Smoke Free Maryland and his department from the event.

He also said the NBA's initial decision to link up with Lorillard was a mistake.

"Smoking is completely antithetical to sports," Beilenson said. He called Lorillard's smoking prevention effort "farcical," adding: "It is unconscionable for companies that are merchants of death to have tiny little programs that supposedly are to reduce youth smoking."

NBA spokesman Mike Bass did not respond last night to a request for comment.

Appler said Smoke Free Maryland intended to protest the ban in some form, but "not necessarily with a physical presence" at the event.

Hoop-It-Up, which bills itself as "the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the world," will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot. Tournament information is available at www.hoopitup.com.

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