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Nascar And Marlboro Under Attack

by Larry Roberts

April 2, 2001

There's no getting around the fact that the tobacco industry is considered a pariah in the American corporate business community. Recent surveys have revealed that Philip Morris is the most reviled business name among the general population, despite ongoing TV and radio promotions by the company to soften its image.

But to one segment of our American culture, tobacco producers in general and R.J.Reynolds (RJR) Tobacco Company in particular are viewed as benefactors. Auto racing has benefited from the patronage of cigarette makers for a very long time and the organization that has profited most is the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR).

In 1971, radio and television advertising of tobacco products was banned in this country and it was in that same year that RJR undertook primary sponsorship of the premiere series for NASCAR and had it renamed the Winston Cup championship. At the same time, RJR undertook primary sponsorship of the Virginia Slims (an RJR cigarette brand) woman's tennis series.

But in the ensuing 30 years, the role of tobacco sponsorship in motorsports events has come under the pressure of congressional activity because of its perceived attraction to young (14 to 24) American males who may be swayed in their decision to smoke or not to smoke. Today, because of lobbying and legal maneuvering, RJR sponsorship of the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship and the even more youth-oriented National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Winston Drag Racing Series, is as strong as ever. And while the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series has only 24 events on its 2001 schedule compared to the 32 Winston Cup NASCAR events, it enjoys considerable television coverage among youthful viewers. As a result of this exposure and the fact that smoking is increasing among the industry-targeted 'replacement' (first-timers to replace those that die off) smokers, anything that involves a perceived violation of the Master Settlement Agreement signed by the tobacco companies and the various states, comes under close scrutiny.

The latest alleged violation of the settlement is the fact that while RJR and NASCAR agreed to erect Marlboro/Winston track-side billboards no earlier than 90 days before a NASCAR event and remove them within 10 days after, some of these billboards are either left up for more than the allowed 100 days or even left up indefinitely.

In response, RJR CEO Andrew Schindler stated that the billboards advertise the entire year-long NASCAR racing season. So far five states have announced plans to sue RJR for violation of the agreement it signed and for targeting youthful racing fans with its promotions.

In the meantime, European racing in general and Federation Internationale Automobile (FIA) Formula One racing in particular has been the focus of enormously expensive lobbying by the Formula One Association to make its events exempt from laws banning any form of advertising for cigarettes. The international tobacco industry has also spent billions of dollars on Formula One racing over the years. Turkey, a promising country for being included in the Formula One schedule because of its increasingly affluent and Westernized population, has banned even the televising of Formula One races because of the display of tobacco ads on the race cars.

European anti-smoking advocates point to the fact that Formula One racing is the most popular spectator and televised sport of any kind in Germany and that the reigning world champion, German Michael Schumacher, has the Marlboro logo prominently displayed on his Ferrari as well as on the front of his driving suit. Other Formula One race teams are similarly sponsored by tobacco companies.

The world-wide sponsorship of auto racing by cigarette makers may face racing's dreaded black flag in the near future.