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The relationship between football and tobacco


Smoking was once a societal norm considered to be a cultured hobby. The health risks were widely unknown with prominent athletes and sports stars known to have been regular smokers. In the 60s it was the likes of Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Charlton, while the 90s and 2000s saw Barthez, Rooney and Zidane all enjoy their favourite brand of cigarettes. 


The relationship between tobacco companies and football used to be fruitful and symbiotic. Cigarette brands would be able to advertise their products to a global market, while the sport’s stakeholders raked in sponsorship money. The 1982 World Cup in Spain was the first tournament to have an organised corporate sponsorship programme. In total $19 million was raised from the 9 top tier sponsors at the tournament, with RJ Reynolds cigarette brand Winston among them. At the next World Cup four years later in Mexico, FIFA’s official partner was Camel. This would be the last time FIFA teamed up with a tobacco brand, eventually signing up to the WHO’s “Tobacco free sports” initiative ahead of the 2002 World Cup. 


Despite FIFA distancing itself from tobacco, the industry’s conglomerates continued to maintain a strong relationship with the sport itself.


The Colombian football league was renamed to Copa Mustang in 1989 after it was cancelled to due the murder of a referee. The cigarette brand hoped to change the image of the league thanks to its longstanding ties to the working man and familial values. This partnership lasted until 2002, when the club sponsored the shirts of Millonarios FC. The same club that Di Stefano and Goycochea played for, albeit at very different times. 


The Dunhill brand was a regular name in Malaysian football in the 90s and early 2000s, with the brand’s parent company British American Tobacco (BAT) sponsoring coverage of the Premier League and “02 World Cup. Meanwhile in Indonesia, Dunhill acquired rights to the newly rebooted league naming it Dunhill Liga as well as requiring all clubs to have the brand name on the front of shirts. 


In 2003, Bosnian football was beginning to pick itself up after the war of the previous decade. Sponsorship money was hard to come by and often only the tobacco companies were wealthy enough to provide clubs with money. Therefore, FK Sarajevo were partnered with Aura, a cigarette brand closely associated with the city due to its factory providing thousands of jobs for the locals. 


Since its disassociation with tobacco, FIFA has fought a battle to remove cigarette advertising from the sport. Initially, the governing body and its global affiliates faltered due to its inability to compete with the financial power of companies such as BAT. In such an example, BAT signed a 10 year deal with the Niger FA that would see its Rothmans brand advertised at all football pitches across the country; while pavilions were built at major intersections across the capital, Niamey. In many cases these were directly opposite schools. For the 2002 World Cup, BAT also struck deal to sponsor fan parks and viewing screens in Niamey. In Pakistan, transmission of the World Cup was sponsored by the Pakistani Tobacco Company and its subsidiary, Diplomat. 


While in South Korea and despite being well aware of the ban on advertising at the tournament, Korean Tobacco and Ginseng monopoly used football imagery on its packets of TIME cigarettes. The range was hugely popular and continued for the 2006 Germany World Cup. The partnerships detailed above caused a major headache for FIFA at the time. The organisation was accused of hypocrisy having declared their tournaments smoke free, yet being seemingly unable to challenge the advertising that was in flagrant violation of their own principles. 


In the UK, Dunhill’s activities in Malaysia caused particular concern. The brand was accused of false advertising, using images of Premier League superstars for their adverts. Lawyers for players involving Beckham, Henry and Owen argued that it would give consumers the false impression that Dunhill was the cigarette of choice for the players involved. There was also concern that this would have a negative affect on the millions of young viewers who avidly follow English football. With smoking rates high amongst under 18s in the region, this was a probable consequence. Dunhill also used the lack of advertising regulations in Malaysia to exaggerate their association with the Premier League; referring to it as the Dunhill English Premier League in their adverts, despite Barclays being the premier sponsor at the time. 


Though a BAT spokeswoman said that the company would no longer associate with sports as it was inappropriate to do so, BAT and Dunhill’s actions are symptomatic of the relationship the developing world has with smoking. While smoking habits are in decline in the West, South East Asia and Africa continue to be growing markets for tobacco companies, where products tend to be cheaper and rules on smoking less strict. 


Post 2002, efforts were made to rid the game of tobacco. UEFA banned smoking on touchlines in 2003, while at the 2006 World Cup the Mexico manager Ricardo La Volpe was warned for lighting up during his team’s group game against Iran. Carlo Ancelotti was also reprimanded for breaking the rules in 2007 during Milan’s UCL fixture against Celtic. In 2010, as part of a blanket ban, FIFA banned smoking from all stadiums and related activities. 


While the effects of smoking are widely known, some figures in football continue to partake in the habit- with some less privately than others. Maurizio Sarri is probably the game’s most prolific smoker. Steadfast in his habit, his favourite brand is said to be Merit. He has become famous for puffing away on the touchline and while at Chelsea was often seen chewing on a filter to stave off his addiction. Now back in Italy with Lazio, Sarri is known to take the train to away games so he can get off at stations for a smoking break. 


In contemporary times, the relationship between football and the tobacco industry is virtually non existent. Primary sponsors at tournaments are now more likely to be energy drinks and financial services companies than anything else. While societal norms have dictated that smoking is no longer in, football’s next battle lies with the new generation of tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and vapes. Tobacco Tactics point out that the uneven application of bans on tobacco advertising in football have led to cases where HTP companies like Glo was able to be one of the Italian national team’s primary sponsors at Euro 2020- this despite the health ministry declaring it illegal. With smoking technology advancing rapidly, it will be interesting to see whether the world of football can keep up.

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