DON'T TWIST TOBACCO BAN LAW

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For the moment, we have no serious complaint about the belated federal crackdown on certain tobacco product signage in sports arenas. But we are concerned that the government not use the federal law that bans broadcast advertising of tobacco products to cast a wider net against other forms of legal tobacco sponsorships.

Where arena signs are clearly placed to get the advertiser generous TV exposure during game telecasts, and are often pitched that way to prospective sponsors, the presence of signs promoting tobacco products violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the federal ban on broadcast advertising for cigarettes. There has been plenty of talk for some time about the appropriateness of tobacco signage in sports arenas, and sports leagues like the National Basketball Association, as well as arena managements, have been responding with policy changes that eventually will end or greatly dimimish it.

Against that background, the Justice Department's decision to force Madison Square Garden to sign a consent decree promising compliance with the law is just an exclamation point to a policy shift that's already under way in the sports marketing community. However, tobacco companies and sports sponsorship marketers, like auto racing teams, are right to be concerned about where this might lead. Will Justice Department lawyers be tempted to use the law against any tobacco brand name or signage that happens to appear on screen-such as those that appear on race cars or race car drivers' uniforms?

The Justice Department says its focus is only on "non-incidental" TV exposure of tobacco signage. This won't satisfy anti-tobacco activists, but it's plainly wrong to twist a federal law against broadcast tobacco ads into a law against all sponsorships.

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