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Uganda: sportsman sent off

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Good news from Uganda! As reported in our last issue, for the past 10 years BAT has ensured minimum criticism of the outrageously inappropriate advertising for its Sportsman cigarette brand by sponsoring the annual Sportsman Gala awards ceremony of the Ugandan Sports Press Association (USPA) (Uganda: athletes fight BAT's abuse of sports. Tobacco Control2000;9:129–30). The sponsorship began to bring hostile comments, intensifying after it was highlighted last year in a newspaper article by dissenting sports journalist and athletics coach Kevin O'Connor. Out of this episode came increasing cooperation by like-minded health and medical organisations, a lawyers' group, and individuals such as Mr O'Connor. Meeting under the auspices of the ministry of health's Tobacco or Health Forum, they augmented and multiplied the ministry's work on tobacco control. They helped articulate a public rejection of tobacco promotion, while the ministry's stand appeared to gain in volume and confidence as previously indifferent mediabegan to take up the issue. Eventually, on the day at the USPA gala on 28 May, it was announced that Sportsman's sponsorship of the event was finishing, to be replaced by Nile Breweries. Another article by Kevin O'Connor, breaking the news of the change in sponsors, was prominently displayed in The East African, an influential newspaper read in several countries in the region. And befitting a member of the health the coalition, O'Connor elegantly clarified health differences between the products of the old sponsor and the new.

Newspaper cartoon depicting sports journalist and athletics coach Kevin O'Connor, after his attack in a Ugandan newspaper on tobacco sponsorship of sport.

The sustained campaign by the ministry and its supporting coalition against the unethical association of unhealthy smoking and healthy sport had got top newspaper journalists speaking out against the tobacco funded gala, later echoed by leading sports administrators. One lone newspaper crudely stuck to the BAT line to the bitter end, even claiming, between free coverage of one of BAT's most cynical promotions (see “Think and Win” story below), that the Sportsman gala “attracted all the country's leading sports personalities”. In reality, out of the 16 national sports associations, only one sent its president or chairman to the event. In a pleasing piece of inter-ministerial solidarity, even the minister of sports skipped the event after consultations with the director general of medical services. And perhaps most telling of all, the two runners up for the annual Sportsman of the year award were also absent.

The Sportsman saga has important lessons for tobacco control advocates in developing countries, especially the role of the Tobacco or Health Forum. The members worked together to build up public opinion against the exploitation of sport by BAT, adding the skills and imprimaturs of other people and organisations to the government's resources in a classic example of the sort of coalition that is so essential for standing up to the tobacco industry. As in other cases featured in recent editions of Tobacco Control, it shows that even in countries whose economic resources are less than the turnover of one of the transnational tobacco companies, where the companies used to do much as they pleased, people working together for health can win major battles.