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Malaysia, too, must flash red card on the tobacco industry and bag a ‘goal’

The New Straits Times, July 14, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

The Football fever is over. There are many lessons that could be learnt from it. The tournament was full of surprises and many firsts. Not only was it is the first time that the tournament was held in Asia, it was also jointly hosted by two countries, namely South Korea and Japan.

For the first time too, four Asian teams competed in the prestigious tournament.

The major surprise was that co-host South Korea went as far as the semi-final. But this was not without controversies, one of them concerning refereeing.

For Malaysia, the surprise was a different kind.

May 31, the World No-Tobacco Day (http://tobacco.who.int) which was celebrated on the same day the World Cup commenced, could well be the beginning of the end of tobacco sponsorship of sports in the country.

This was highly symbolic of Malaysia’s commitment in declaring a total war against smoking as well as any other form of tobacco use.

As said by Fifa’s then director of communication, Keith Cooper, “It is the right time to hold a real fight against smoking and those advertising tobacco. And football is an excellent means to start the action.”

In fact, it was reported that World Cup fans could not take cigarettes or other tobacco products into the stadiums during matches. Sales and smoking were limited to designated areas.

It was certainly a clear signal that the tobacco industry was given the boot out of sporting events worldwide. Malaysia must show such a high level of commitment, too, if it wants to win.

The last time Fifa partnered a tobacco industry was some 16 years ago. Since then it has stopped.

Unfortunately, at about that time Malaysia became the tobacco industry’s favourite killing fields. Tobacco played a central role in promoting major sports in Malaysia, not limited only to football.

However, beginning with the headline in the sports page, “Spoon-feeding days are numbered” (NST, May 25), many more statements were issued convincing us that Malaysia is finally ready to “play it clean”.

Though a little too late in coming, considering that more than 16 years have passed by, it is better late than never.

It is important to quickly make up for lost time so that precious lives can be spared.

Reality check: How soon can Malaysia wrangle itself out from being “colonized” by subsidiaries of deadly companies based in some distant lands?

Already there are a number of versions. “Responsible marketing” (though inadequate) adopted by the industry will only come into effect in December 2002.

The Government seems to be more generous. Its deadline is June 2003. In the case of the FA of Malaysia (FAM), its contract with the tobacco company will only expire in 2004.

It is obvious that some refereeing is required here. How controversial the refereeing is going to be is another important question.

Quite definitely, like the World Cup, there is still room for the so-called “human error” giving rise to some unexpected results.

On the downside is the task to find a new sponsor. Acknowledging that the current tobacco financial sponsorship is valued at RM30 million a year, some are already saying that there is no single company which can match this amount.

Whatever the case, now that the FAM is “in the midst of negotiating with other giant sponsors”, some cautionary remarks based on a research article could be instructive.

According to Stacy Carter, in the recent issue of Tobacco Control, process is both subtle and intense. The industry tends to hire public relation (PR) firms to do its dirty job of “undermining consumer rights and social justice”.

A case in point, in July 2000, a World Health Organisation (WHO) Committee of Experts released  a report entitled “Tobacco company’s strategies to undermine tobacco control activities at the World Health Organisation”.

It gave many detailed evidences of wide-ranging ploys to “contain, neutralize and reorient” WHO tobacco control activities, showing how deceitful the tobacco industry can be.

Strategically, wrote Carter, the PR firms prefer not to engage in public communication and deliberately maintained a low profile. Some honed a niche “as expert intelligence-gatherers, helping multinationals to bring down advocacy campaigns both through advice and through practical, logistical support”.

To do this, “a crash effort to recruit and retain national and state organizations, as well as individuals, to a broad-based ad hoc coalition” has been attempted.

Otherwise, mail and telephone “surveys” are usually carried out, “generally framing their true objectives euphemistically”.

Some suggested that the information-gathering amounts to a kind of “espionage” aimed at damaging tobacco control efforts.

The likelihood of this happening is not remote. There is now an indication that British-American Tobacco (BAT), the World Cup TV-sponsor in Malaysia, is going through a “stakeholder dialogue” involving “many countries”.

BAT is said to be preparing what it calls a “report to society” in which auditors will appraise its social and ethical performance 

This is part of the company’s strategy to be seen as a “responsible company is a controversial industry”, noted Clive Bates of ASH, a UK anti-tobacco organization, recently.

So, is Malaysia ready for the next level of the game and be a winner?

Thus far, we have paid dearly the price of being gullible to whatever strategy used against us. It is critical that today we make amends by booting out the tobacco industry from out football scene, and sporting events in general.

Only then can we score that single overdue victory over the tobacco industry.

It is imperative that we make our sports tobacco free and play it clean. And there can be no controversy about this.

Recommended site: www.ash.org.uk/html/conduct/html/reporttosocie-ty.html.



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