By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
A woman on horseback whipped around the Curry County Mounted Patrol Arena on Friday night, the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. flag she held flapping almost regally in the wind.
As a sponsor of the Pioneer Days Rodeo, the company is entitled to the display, said Dewey Pierce, captain of the Mounted Patrol, the group that puts on the annual pro rodeo. However, two local groups, comprised of students from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Students Concerned About Tobacco, merged outside the arena gates this weekend to protest the sponsorship, part of an ongoing debate over advertising of smokeless tobacco at sporting events.
Armed with a stack of surveys and a clipboard, FCA member and Clovis High School senior Kelsi Shough wove in and out of the arena’s packed bleachers, asking attendees if they supported the sponsorship.
“It’s a disgusting habit,” said Shough, one of about 10 students who took part in the weekend’s protest.
The groups hope the surveys will raise dialogue about the issue. If the data shows the public strongly supports prohibiting tobacco sponsorship at rodeo events, local anti-tobacco organizations will present the data to Mounted Patrol members in an attempt to cease future sponsorship.
The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., Pierce said, contributed $3,800 in support of the eight Pioneer Days Rodeo events. The company is the world’s largest manufacturer of smokeless tobacco, the giant behind well-known “snuff” brands Copenhagen, Skoal and Rooster.
Finding sponsorship for the events, Pierce said, can be difficult. Finding a national sponsor is even tougher, and the Mounted Patrol recently lost the valuable sponsorship of Wrangler. The nationwide denim company contributed thousands in the past, but abandoned Curry County for larger rodeos, Pierce said. So, the tobacco topic is a touchy one.
“The national sponsors — they find us. We are working hard trying to get the best money to get the best cowboys, and that money (from U.S. Smokeless Tobacco) really helps,” Pierce said.
“I think it may be enticing for the tobacco companies to use the rodeo. A lot of cowboys and cowboys’ families do dip.”
Linda Teakell, contract coordinator for Curry Citizens Concerned About Tobacco, is concerned about the tobacco companies’ appropriation of the cowboy image in advertisement. To get the message across, Teakell displayed a grave with a straw hat and cowboy boots peeking out from the top and bottom of the dirt pile in the bed of a pickup truck outside the arena.
“Our main point is to draw attention to the marketing of tobacco to young people,” Teakell said.
U.S. Smokeless Tobacco representatives could not be reached for comment on Saturday. But the company’s Web site makes multiple references to a commitment to fighting tobacco use among youth.
“Smokeless tobacco products are not for sale to minors,” the company’s Web site reads. “At U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, this is our policy, and it’s not open to interpretation. We say it. We print it. We mean it.
“It has and always will be our policy that our products are for adults, and adults only. As a responsible corporate citizen, the company is dedicated to addressing concerns about youth usage of smokeless tobacco products. U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company has taken an active stance, on our own, and in cooperation with retailers, consumers and other responsible adults to discourage sales of our products to minors.”
The future of the tobacco sponsorship at the Pioneer Days Rodeo remains intact, Pierce said.