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Smoking endorsements and false perceptions about athletic excellence

The New Straits Times, May 5, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

"MALAYSIA humiliated again!" was the front-page headline in the Sports section of the New Sunday Times last week (April 28). This was in reference to Malaysia's third defeat, this time to Canada, in the Malaysia Sevens rugby tournament, part of the World Sevens series. But this might not be the only humiliation Malaysia will face in the sports arena. In the run-up to the World Cup in June, more humiliation is in the offing, albeit unnoticed by many.

No, it is not about our team making the World Cup and predictably losing all their group matches. It is about Malaysia once again having to sell its dignity to a tobacco company in order to promote the World Cup games to its citizens.

Though some may liken this to a win-win strategy, unfortunately it is just not so. The clear winner is the tobacco industry, the losers are definitely the Malaysian people. Much like the rugby sevens, when it comes to tobacco sponsorship, Malaysia can never win. The only difference is that with tobacco, the defeat is a trashing one, one that we have to pay with the lives of our fellow Malaysians. Worst still we are repeating this fatal mistake year in year out (not just during the World Cup year). This is despite world opinions about the relationship between tobacco and sports radically changing. For example, in response to the global appeal for action, many have joined the World Health Organisation to make sports tobacco-free.

This includes Fifa (Federation Internationale de Football Association) such that all forms of endorsements and associations relating to tobacco and sports are banned, be it tobacco consumption, exposure to second-hand smoke, advertising, promotion and marketing. This point is now reiterated by the World Health Organisation as we approach the "World No Tobacco Day" at the end of this month. The theme this year is most apt: "Tobacco Free Sports — Play it clean".

This cannot be more appropriate considering how deceptive the tactics are employed by the tobacco industry in promoting smoking through sports. Although the industry once used to believe in its magnanimous sense of philanthropy as discussed in last week's column, the stories are often different. This is further testified by an internal memo issued by the industry. Admitting that the industry "is not in sports business", such an event has been exploited for marketing, marked by an increase in sales.

A case in point is the 1996 Indian World Cup Cricket, a tobacco-sponsored event. A survey documented smoking among Indian teenagers increased five-fold, apart from a marked increase in false perceptions about athletic excellence. This being the case, how can such a strategy be regarded as a win-win situation? Instead, WHO terms it as "global deception" in its 2002 World No Tobacco Day website. It wrote: "The deception is for the public" whereby tobacco is regarded as a communicated disease, namely through advertising and sponsorship.

As urged by WHO, just look at the jerseys of our football teams, look at the items like bags, caps, and other paraphernalia that youngsters love to have. Look at the billboards that span the roads and public places, including stadiums. The examples are too numerous to list especially in this country, infamous for its tobacco brandstretching laxity.

In other words, for all those items that are allowed to be displayed, the powers that be are being deceived, knowingly and unknowingly, and that deception is being passed on to the general public.

This impact will continue for as long as the items are allowed to prevail, impacting millions of young and impressionable minds where toxic products are repackaged as glamorous items; death as good life; disease as health; and addiction as freedom.

But being too blinded by the tobacco dollars, many national level sports associations, media houses as well as broadcasting agencies have succumbed to the deception.

The World Cup games will be a testimony to this, not that we are short of current examples. It is as though the lives of Malaysians are cheap enough to be bought with tobacco dollars time and again.

It is hard to miss the contradiction between what the tobacco industry stood for, and the "ends justify the means" approach it took, and the aims to sporting bodies like Fifa, and why the World Cup is held in the first place.

Tobacco promotes misery, while football celebrates not just living, but clean and healthy living.

Nobody in their right mind will attempt to put them in the same basket without so much as sending some strong schizophrenic signals to all sports fans around the country, especially the young and impressionable. Perhaps Malaysia's loss to Canada in the rugby tournament is more than just an unfortunate event. It may be a reminder that in terms of tobacco control, Malaysia is nowhere near what Canada has achieved so far. If the achievements could be converted to points, the score is more likely to be a very humiliating defeat.

But as in sports, in tobacco control too the powers that be seem not to mind if we continue to be humiliated yet again. How much longer will we have to be humiliated and have to tolerate it is the question that must be urgently resolved! 
Recommended website: http://tobacco.who.int

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