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Anti-Smoking Forces Ready to Invade Tobacco Road

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anti-tobacco crusader Pat Etem was getting her first close look at a race car this week and was loving it.

What Etem especially loved about car No. 13, a 640-horsepower Trans-Am, were the squeals it generated from a group of several hundred fourth- and fifth-graders at Long Beach’s International Elementary School.

“It’s great,” said Etem, whose anti-tobacco group, L.A. Link, is sponsoring the car in one of this weekend’s support races for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “I just can’t wait to see it on the track.” Etem, a onetime member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team, has never been to an auto race before. But she reflects the latest twist on the long-standing battle between tobacco companies and their foes.

Having bloodied the Marlboro Man, anti-smoking forces are taking dead aim on another bit of Americana: cigarette sponsors of auto racing.

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In this weekend’s Grand Prix, the American Cancer Society for the first time will have its logo on two Indy-type cars, and Etem’s group is using Proposition 99 tobacco tax money to sponsor the Trans-Am. SmithKline Beecham, a pharmaceutical company, has recast its Indy-type car to play up its Nicorette gum and Nicoderm nicotine patches.

The efforts are aimed at countering, at least in a small way, the publicity generated by heavily financed racing teams sponsored by makers of Marlboro, Kool, Player’s and Hollywood cigarettes.

The fight could be short-lived.

Even before they have won a race, the anti-tobacco activists are on the brink of driving the tobacco companies from racing. A $368.5-billion agreement being negotiated by the companies to settle dozens of state lawsuits would contain a provision barring them from sponsoring athletic events such as the Grand Prix.

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But, until the agreement is signed, the anti-tobacco faction will be keeping the pressure on.

They, like the cigarette companies, have discovered that sponsoring race cars is a great way to reach young people.

“Race cars are spontaneously attractive to kids,” said driver David Seuss, who showed off his L.A. Link-sponsored Trans-Am and gave a short anti-smoking message at International School.

To be sure, the cigarette companies have a decided advantage in experience, financing and racetrack savvy. One of the two cars run by Marlboro Team Penske is driven by Al Unser Jr., known as “King of the Beach” because he has won in Long Beach six times.

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Rival Team Kool Green also has two cars in this year’s Long Beach race, one of them driven by Paul Tracy, a winner of three races last year.

Carrying the banner for the anti-smoking faction are two cars with less well-known drivers.

SmithKline Beecham will advertise its gum and nicotine patches, which are designed to help people quit smoking, in a car driven by Dennis Vitolo, who is still looking for his first Indy car win. One of Vitolo’s claims to fame, according to the company, is that he “stopped smoking the day he started racing cars.”

To help raise its profile in Long Beach, SmithKline will have its NicoVan, a 34-foot motor home that will be staffed at the racetrack by counselors and pharmacists who will dispense advice and literature to smokers that, according to the company, “will get them on the road to a smoke-free life.”

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The American Cancer Society, as part of its healthy lifestyle campaign, will put its decals on SmithKline’s car as well as on one sponsored by LCI International, a communications company.

Alan Henderson, a professor of health sciences at Cal State Long Beach and president of the state chapter of the American Cancer Society, said that even if cigarette companies leave auto racing, organizations like his are likely to stay.

“We think this is a great place for the American Cancer Society to be,” said Henderson, a longtime racing buff.

Race car sponsors keep their budgets a closely held secret, but estimates are that the tobacco companies spend as much as $50 million collectively to sponsor cars in the Toyota Grand Prix and other Indy-style CART races.

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Tobacco companies have little to say about their adversaries.

“It’s a free society,” said Bert Kremer, of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., which owns Kool. “They have every right to their views.”

Compared to the millions spent by tobacco companies, the $5,000 in Proposition 99 tobacco tax money being used to help sponsor Seuss’ Trans-Am is almost negligible.

But for anti-smoking forces, the money is a significant step forward.

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L.A. Link is the Los Angeles coalition that decides what kind of programs will receive the region’s share of Proposition 99 money. The money comes from a voter-approved initiative that provides a share of tobacco tax money for education, health and smoking-prevention programs.

Last year, L.A. Link sponsored the “Tobacco-Free Grand Prix,” a race put on at Cal State Long Beach for schoolchildren who competed in motorless handmade cars.

Etem said the children’s race will move to the fall this year, after some saw it as a rival to the Grand Prix.


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