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A discussion of the tobacco industry's exploitation of “smoke-free” Olympic Games

It may surprise you to learn, as it did me, that the tobacco industry and the Olympic Games have a long history stretching back to the 1948 London Games, of which Craven A cigarettes was a major sponsor. As I learned from Robert Jackler, MD, chair of otolaryngology at Stanford, the relationship between the Olympics and tobacco industry grew to be quite close over the next four decades, until the International Olympic Committee (IOC) adopted a tobacco-free policy. But the adoption of the new policy didn't necessarily translate into a "smoke-free" Olympic Games.

Below Jackler, whose ongoing research into the history of tobacco company advertising has resulted in several published studies, discusses the tobacco industry's motivation for aligning itself with the Olympic Games, how the IOC's tobacco-free policy affected companies' marketing strategies and present-day tactics by the industry to capitalize on global Olympic fever.

Why would the tobacco industry want to associate itself with the Olympic Games?

The tobacco industry has long sought to affiliate its products with cherished and admired cultural icons such as sports heroes, movie stars and even Santa Claus. Few traditions possess a greater luster and aura of nobility than the Olympic Games. By allying itself with the illustrious global sporting event, the industry links smoking and tobacco use with healthfulness, physical fitness, heroism, national pride and sheer entertainment. Explicit tobacco association with the Olympics has a lengthy history that includes formal sponsorship (e.g. the official cigarette of the Olympics) but industry exploitation continues to the present day.

How did tobacco marketing change after the Olympic became "smoke free?"

In 1988, the International Olympic Committee adopted a tobacco-free policy for the Olympic Games. This was certainly a laudable step, and most observers no doubt assumed that this policy meant the end of the tobacco industry's association with the games. However, those who study tobacco industry practices would not be surprised to hear that our research found this was very far from what actually happened.

The "smoke-free" Atlanta 1996 Olympics provide an excellent illustration of the methods used by the industry to exploit the Games in the post-ban era. A unique insight into industry strategies and tactics for these games is provided by internal documents released as a result of the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (.pdf). While excluded from the venue itself, the industry extended its far-reaching tentacles into the immediate areas adjacent to and surrounding the Olympic Ring. The Atlanta region, including every conceivable route leading to and from the Olympic Village, became enveloped in an octopus-like emporium of tobacco marketing.

In the most overt effort, cigarette advertising appeared during the Atlanta Olympics on innumerable billboards, bus sides, taxi tops, newspapers, city guides, convenience stores and hotel lobbies. Local publications such as Atlanta magazine sported tobacco advertisements, while Olympic issues of magazines, including Sports Illustrated and TV Guide, disseminated tobacco ads on a national scale.

Philip Morris (PM) drastically increased product inventory at convenience stores and grocery outlets on the fringe of the Olympic Ring prior to the event. PM documents describe "welcome centers" adjacent to mass transit locations. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, PM funded the construction of eight glass-enclosed smoking rooms in time for the games.

In order to build relationships with top industry clients, PM's senior account managers invited VIP customers to join them at the games to show the clients they are "valued." Documents explain that "attending the Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most people and PM USA made it possible" for those VIP customers - strengthening those important relationships. The notorious Tobacco Institute used the Atlanta Olympics for lobbying. They sponsored "VIP Olympic packages" for a select group of "Republican Eagles," which consisted of major donors to the Republican National Committee.

Perhaps the most comprehensive effort was the tobacco company's "accommodation program." PM managed to hermetically surround the Olympic site with hotels, restaurants and bars that would accommodate smokers. Over 700 establishments surrounding the Olympic Ring participated in the program, all despite the Olympic committee's anti-smoking policies. Table tents and stickers explaining the program were provided free of charge, as was the inclusion in the Atlanta Accommodation Guide, a booklet provided at every local visitor's bureau, kiosks in the Olympic Village, and local hotels and businesses. The accommodation program worked emphatically to provide a milieu of social acceptance of smoking and succeeded in enveloping the games in a virtual smoke ring.

What is the tobacco industry doing today to associate itself with the Olympic Games?

The internal industry documents whose release was compelled by the master settlement span the period before 1998, providing an unprecedented insight into the industry's efforts in Atlanta in 1996. It appears highly probable that analogous efforts continue today. In the 2008 Beijing's "smoke-free" Olympics, the host Village contained numerous garbage bins replete with "well-used ashtrays." After winning his gold medal in the 110M hurdles in Athens 2004, Liu Xiang became spokesperson of Baisha Tobacco representing its Crane logo. In the 2012 London Olympics, electronic cigarettes are permitted on site and one enterprising company is even marketing a "London Olympics 2012" brand. The tobacco industry expends enormous resources in enlisting highly talented, clever and creative marketing professionals. Were another Olympics held in the U.S. today, there can be little doubt that a wide-ranging effort would be made to exploit its marketing value to recruit and retain smokers.

Samantha Lasarow and Kirstie Chen contributed to this entry.

Previously: What's being done about the way tobacco companies market and manufacture products, Stanford chair of otolaryngology discusses federal court's ruling on graphic cigarette labels, Hey doc, got a light? Research highlights Big Tobacco's long history with the medical community and NPR's Picture Show highlights Stanford collection of cigarette ads, Image of the Week: A new cigarette warning

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