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Government Contract with Tobacco Advertiser Blasted by Smoke Foes

By Alissa J. Rubin
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The government's anti-drug agency has come under attack from a key Republican senator and anti-smoking groups for awarding a multimillion-dollar advertising contract to a company that handles publicity for a major tobacco company.

Bates USA handles publicity for one of tobacco company Brown and Williamson's leading cigarette brands - Lucky Strike - and, according to industry sources, has just won accounts worth $50 million to publicize the company's Kool and Capri brands.

"It is inconceivable to me that the Office of National Drug Control Policy has disbursed millions of tax dollars for marketing efforts to deter our nation's children from using illicit drugs to an agency which represents one of the largest tobacco companies, Brown and Williamson," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a letter to White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

McCain said in an interview that Bates USA has "made a lot of money off of placing ads that kept kids smoking," McCain added in an interview. "This is in direct contradiction to what the government is trying to do - it's hypocrisy," he said.

McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was the lead sponsor of a Senate bill designed to reduce smoking by young people. Tobacco companies spent more than $40 million advertising against the legislation, which died earlier this year.

Officials in McCaffrey's office and at Bates said the situation is not as clear-cut as it may appear. Under federal procurement rules, they said, the government cannot restrict bidding to companies that eschew tobacco clients.

Furthermore, Bates' will only be buying advertising time and space for the government's anti-drug ads. Creation of the ads and the overall advertising strategy is the job of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and a panel of medical and educational experts.

"There's no legal way that the government could preclude any vendor from bidding on this," said Alan Levitt, director of the national youth anti-drug media campaign.

And since Bates does not design the ads, there is no conflict of interest, he said, adding that although the Drug Policy office works to discourage drug use of all kinds, for the moment, its ad campaign is focused exclusively on illegal drugs.

"We are very happy and very pleased with their work," Levitt added.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is just finishing the first year of a five-year, $1 billion program of anti-drug advertising. For placing the ads for one year, Bates will be paid about 10 percent of the $120 million of ads it placed.

The Drug Policy office is currently reviewing bids from several major advertising agencies to handle the job for the remaining four years of the anti-drug campaign.