It is of course well known that when tobacco sponsorship of sport ended in 1994, Australian sport never recovered. Without Benson & Hedges, Winfield, Peter Jackson and Escort sponsoring our major football codes, cricket, horse, dogs and motor-racing, these sports all perished, facilities withered, television coverage stopped and the sports died.

We all remember how the Australian Open was removed from the grand slam circuit after its ties to Marlboro were cut.

This of course was the threat promoted for years by the tobacco industry and its sponsorship-bloated errand boys within sport, epitomised by a 1981 lobbying publication prepared by the Tobacco Institute of Australia Don’t sit on the sidelines: the case for sponsorship of sport. The document contained boilerplate letters from 31 sporting heavyweights such as Brian Tobin from the Lawn Tennis Association, Phil Ridings from the Australian Cricket Board, Ken Elphick from Sydney Rugby Union and Arthur George from the Australian Soccer Federation. All spelt out the apocalypse that would surely follow any hand being laid on tobacco.

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The same arguments are about to be reprised in a major campaign being coordinated through a newly formed coalition led by Malcolm Speed, former head of the International Cricket Council and now a director at Melbourne commercial firm Brian Ward & Partners. Speed moved into thinly disguised code at a consultation convened yesterday at Parliament House by Health Minister Nicola Roxon, when he told the room that he represented a new confederation of all Australia’s football codes, cricket and golf which had come together to respond to the report of the Preventative (sic) Health Task Force. The Task Force includes a recommendation that would see advertising during live sport broadcasts phased out during high adolescent/child viewing times and the end of alcohol sponsorship of sport.

According to Speed, the four football codes, bitter rivals in every respect, have not yet reached a common position but have agreed to be “proactive”. They know which side their corporate box bread is buttered.

Knowing its own credibility was like the Grim Reaper’s, the tobacco industry pioneered the development of apparently independent lobby groups set up to attack everything from pack health warnings to attacks on sponsorship. It helped establish the Confederation of Australian Sport in 1976: “The salary and office expenses of the Confederation’s President, Wayne Reid, are paid by the Australian tobacco manufacturers under a separate consultancy agreement with each of the three companies.”

Last night Opposition health spokesman in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, spoke to block the formation of the Government’s Australian Preventive Health Agency Bill (2009), the first cab off the rank in the government’s response to the Task Force report.

Roxon told the meeting that a greater orientation of the health system to prevention was the second principle after a consumer-centred approach in the Government’s health care reforms. In the months to come, it will be interesting to watch sporting administrators’ Canute-like actions in trying to defend the likes of child-friendly Bundy Bear, cousin to Humphrey and Paddington, in their sponsorships. Plus ça change.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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