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The U.S. Justice Department is launching an attack against tobacco sports advertising, accusing marketers of using signage to bypass laws barring tobacco ads on TV.

In a move that could send tremors through the event marketing field, the Justice Department last week filed a suit against Madison Square Garden accusing the stadium of violating the Cigarette Labeling & Advertising Act. The suit filed in U.S. District Court in New York charged a Marlboro ad that had earlier appeared on a courtside revolving sign was regularly picked up by cable and local TV channels in game coverage.

In an accompanying consent degree, the stadium agreed not to feature the tobacco advertising on signs "regularly in a camera's focus."

"We are not trying to stop the [tobacco] signs in general," said Eugene Thirolf, director of the department's Office of Consumer Litigation. "We want to stop those that appear on TV in non-incidental ways."

He said the department has begun examining signage at other sporting events.

Tobacco companies sponsor tennis, auto racing, baseball and many other events that get TV coverage, and the signs often appear on TV.

Mr. Thirolf declined to discuss specific sports or venues, but he said the Justice Department's biggest concern was events appealing to youths.

"We don't believe that we will have the time and resources to go wherever cigarette signs are located and where they could be on television, but we will address those situations where they come to our attention," he said.

There were some indications last week that the next target could be a baseball stadium.

New National Basketball Association rules for the 1994-95 season ban new contracts for courtside tobacco advertising, although Marlboro had an existing agreement for the sign in question.

The Justice Department viewed the Marlboro ad as an especially "overt display" that was a flagrant violation of the Federal Communication Act barring broadcast tobacco advertising. The sign was pulled before this 1994-95 season began, during negotiations with the Justice Department.

Marlboro marketer Philip Morris USA was quick to deny the sign was intended as an illegal attempt to advertise on TV.

"Our one and only purpose was to reach the large numbers of adult smokers who attend the games and other events," a company spokeswoman said. "Any TV coverage is purely incidental."

The company noted its contract with Madison Square Garden still calls for a dozen signs.

One obvious target for the Justice Department would be auto racing, where cigarette companies sponsor racing teams and series.

"We're going to take a look at what looks like another tactic to combat companies that market legal products," said Adam Saal, director of public relations for Championship Auto Racing Teams, which runs and markets the IndyCar racing circuit. "Cigarettes, while controversial, are still legal products for sale."

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