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Kenya: tobacco rally leaves health a wreck

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The gruelling Safari Rally, formerly the East African Safari, is said to be the world's toughest, longest motor rally, and the most exciting for spectators. It has been running for nearly half a century, and in recent years has become one of the most aggressive forms of tobacco promotion in the world. When leading sponsor British American Tobacco (BAT) switched promotional tactics in the late 1990s to sponsor soccer, Philip Morris clearly saw a major opportunity and the event became known as the Marlboro Rally. However, in the 1990s protests by health organisations brought about changes in the name of the event and the sponsorship arrangement—but not in the saturation coverage associating Marlboro cigarettes with courage, excitement, vitality, and success.

In July 2001, 41 cars set off on the 2600 km (1600 mile) route across largely tough and inhospitable terrain. Three days later, just 15 cars finished the course, led by the famous Finnish driver Tommi Makinen and his co-driver Risto Mannisenmaki. Around 1500 foreign journalists covered the rally, and among their output was a daily 26 minute video bulletin of the latest highlights, distributed to 186 countries and reaching an estimated 460 million people. Not surprisingly, Kenyans were among those most directly caught in the slipstream of all the publicity. Four national television stations beamed exciting clips of the rally in every news bulletin and sports programme, day and night, and the print media was drenched with pictures of Marlboro cars, not just in news pictures, but in advertisements for Mitsubishi, the Marlboro team's car. Forty five per cent of Kenyans were estimated to have seen coverage of the rally, either on television, in newspapers and magazines, or as spectators.

In addition to the winning car, Marlboro saw six of its other vehicles complete the rally at Nairobi's Kenyatta International Conference Centre. While things may have changed superficially since 1995, when children were pictured actually standing on BAT's 555 cigarette branded car, the majority of the hundreds of people at the finishing line this year were reported to be children under 18 years old.

With the rally achieving such massive publicity, and having such obvious appeal to youth, Philip Morris must feel its investment has been well worthwhile. In many countries that received media coverage of the event, advertising bans have forced the traditional Marlboro cowboy to ride off into the sunset. But motor sport drivers have become the cowboys of today: tough and healthy, fearless and independent—ideal heroes of the young.

Like its predecessor BAT, Philip Morris says it observes strict standards of responsible promotion in all its markets nowadays.

Motor sports, such as the Kenyan Safari Rally, still provide massive publicity for tobacco companies such as Philip Morris (Marlboro), who took over sponsorship of the rally from BAT (555).