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The N.B.A. Regretfully Cancels a Lorillard Sponsorship

The National Basketball Association and the Lorillard Tobacco Company are blaming anti-tobacco activists for the decision to remove the cigarette maker's Youth Smoking Prevention Program as a sponsor of a popular youth basketball tournament.

The decision was disclosed by the league and Lorillard yesterday, three weeks after the league quietly canceled a contract with Lorillard, a division of the Loews Corporation, to be a sponsor of the N.B.A.'s Hoop-It-Up three-on-three basketball tournament. The league acted after four organizations - the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids - urged David Stern, the league's commissioner, to discontinue the sponsorship.

But in announcing the sponsorship's end, executives at both the N.B.A. and Lorillard contended that the anti-smoking activists were hurting their own cause by attacking educational programs like Lorillard's. The coalition of health organizations rejected the charge.

The dispute is the most recent in a series between anti-smoking activists and the cigarette makers whose products they demonize. The activists say that the efforts by the tobacco companies to discourage underage smokers are ineffective at best and hypocritical at worst. Companies like Lorillard and the Philip Morris division of the Philip Morris Companies, the nation's largest cigarette maker, have undertaken those efforts to burnish their images after years of castigation, verbal and legal, from opponents of smoking.

Lorillard, which sells cigarette brands like Newport and True, has financed its youth anti-tobacco program since 1999. The effort, which carries the theme "Tobacco is whacko if you're a teen," seeks to reach teenagers with its anti-smoking messages in print, on the Internet (www.buttoutnow.com) and through sponsorships. The agency for the campaign is Bozell in New York, part of the Partnership division of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

"What started out as a unique opportunity to educate kids about saying no to smoking was undermined by negative publicity about Lorillard's Youth Smoking Prevention Program," said Tim Andree, senior vice president for communications at the basketball association in New York, in a joint statement with his counterpart at Lorillard.

"In turn, this created unwanted controversy for both the N.B.A. and the Lorillard Tobacco Company," he added, "which led to our decision to discontinue the sponsorship."

Steve Watson, vice president for external affairs at Lorillard in Greensboro, N.C., said in a telephone interview that the decision by the league was "unfortunate but understandable."

"The real tragedy here is that an opportunity has been lost," Mr. Watson said, to engage in "a really positive and effective way to communicate with kids."

Lorillard did not learn of the basketball league's decision to end the sponsorship until several days after it was made, Mr. Watson said, adding, "We found out through the newspapers."

"Since that time, we've had some very good discussions with the N.B.A.," he added, which resulted in the joint statement yesterday that formally disclosed the decision.

Mr. Andree said that league executives "regret the abrupt manner in which we terminated the sponsorship" and "did not intend to cast the reputation of Lorillard's Youth Smoking Prevention Program in a negative light."

The anti-smoking activists have been doing that for some time, and were pleased to continue to do so yesterday when they were asked to respond to the joint statement.

"The N.B.A.'s partnership with Lorillard sent the wrong message to our children about the harm caused by tobacco use and the role of the tobacco companies in promoting youth tobacco use," the four organizations said in a statement they released together in Washington.

"Lorillard is trying to use partnerships with reputable organizations to create the image that it has changed, when in fact it and the other tobacco companies continue to engage in marketing practices that addict more than 2,000 kids every day," the statement added. "Lorillard's `Tobacco is whacko if you're a teen' program frames smoking as an adult activity, which, as any parent knows and tobacco industry documents recognize, is one of the most effective ways to tempt teens to try a forbidden activity."

An anti-smoking campaign aimed at teenagers from the American Legacy Foundation, created with no input from the cigarette makers, seeks to discourage smoking by telling the target audience what it labels the "truth" about marketing ploys aimed at them by Big Tobacco. The "Truth" campaign is created by Arnold Worldwide in Boston, part of the Arnold Worldwide Partners division of Havas, and Crispin, Porter & Bogusky in Miami.

Lyndon Haviland, chief operating officer of the foundation, which has previously clashed with Lorillard over ads in the "Truth" campaign, said she applauded the league's decision to discontinue the Lorillard sponsorship. But she complained that tobacco companies were continuing to influence event organizers to keep anti-smoking activists out.

For example, Ms. Haviland said, the foundation has been barred from arranging for the "Truth" campaign to be a sponsor at concerts where tobacco companies sponsor smoking tents. And The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Smoke Free Maryland, which had planned to co-sponsor a booth when the Hoop-It-Up tournament arrived in Baltimore this weekend, was told that no anti-smoking sponsors would be sought after the cancellation of the Lorillard contract.

The tournament, which began in March, is continuing to tour the country through its scheduled end next month, said Mr. Andree of the N.B.A., with the continued participation of other sponsors that include Foot Locker, Gatorade, Jeep, Jockey, New Balance and Verizon Wireless.

Mr. Watson at Lorillard said that the company would "continue to look for opportunities to partner with organizations that reach out to kids, to put out the message that kids should never smoke." The Lorillard anti-smoking program has sponsored events like a current tour by the skateboarder Tony Hawk and a tour last year by the boy band 98 Degrees.


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. August 22, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.