• 12/30/2004
  • Ken Carlson
  • The Modesto Bee (modbee.com)

Health agency out to get Oakdale Rodeo to sever ties with maker of snuff

A campaign backed by the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency is trying to buck a tobacco company’s sponsorship of the Oakdale Rodeo.
And since the Oakdale Saddle Club, which puts on the rodeo every April, so far has refused to cut ties with the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., the Health Services Agency plans another tack: a billboard due to go up next week along Highway 108 between Riverbank and Oak-dale.

The message: “Don’t let spit tobacco stain our rodeo.”

“Spit tobacco” is smokeless tobacco, such as Copenhagen and Skoal, two of U.S. Smokeless Tobacco’s products. The company is the leading producer of brand-name smokeless tobacco, also called chew and snuff.

The Buck Tobacco Sponsorship campaign is targeting rodeos in Stanislaus, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and San Diego counties. Campaign officials said rodeos are family events where cancer-causing products, such as tobacco, should not be promoted.

Michael Wagner, an Oakdale Saddle Club board member who oversees sponsorships, said he has talked with Buck Tobacco campaign officials for several months. As of now, the club has no intention of ending its relationship with U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, he said. But, he added, the club will ensure that the smokeless tobacco sampling tent at 2005’s rodeo will be nowhere near concessions that attract youngsters.

“We want to work with them, as best we can, so we can retain the benefits of the sponsorship,” Wagner said. “We are sensitive to what they are trying to do.”

At the 2004 rodeo, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco set up its sampling tent near the entrance gate and close to a concession that attracted young people, said Mark Loeser, tobacco education director for the Health Services Agency.

“If you were 18 and up, you could get free Copenhagen as you walked into the rodeo grounds,” Loeser said. “Right next to the sampling tent, they had a mechanical bull where kids pay $5 to ride a bull.”

Spectators, young and old, also saw the tobacco company’s name on a scoreboard and arena banners, he said suivant.

“What the tobacco company is trying to do is hook the next generation of users,” Loeser said.

Habitual use of smokeless tobacco puts people at higher risk of oral cancer, gum disease and heart ailments, according to health officials.

Tobacco industry money used

The nonprofit Public Health Institute is funding Buck Tobacco with tobacco company money, collected in the settlements of three lawsuits against the chewing tobacco industry. Stanislaus County got $90,000. The Health Services Agency is trying to get Oakdale community leaders, teachers and students behind the Buck Tobacco campaign.

Mike Bazinet, spokesman for Connecticut-based U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, said the company brings in a scoreboard for the Oakdale Rodeo and gives the Saddle Club a few thousand dollars in sponsorship money. In exchange, the company can display its name and give away samples at the rodeo. He said sampling tent personnel check identification to ensure that only adults are admitted. The company also is a major sponsor of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which sanctions the Oakdale event and hundreds of other rodeos.

“We feel that the sport has benefited from the association over time,” Bazinet said. “Historically, there have not been many national sponsors of the sport.”

The company provides giant traveling electronic boards that display cowboy names and scores. And, like scoreboards in football and baseball stadiums, the tobacco company boards display cheering messages, and community messages, too. Wagner said it would cost upward of $200,000 for the Saddle Club to buy a scoreboard. He said the club is open to a local sponsor providing a scoreboard, but no one has stepped forward. Mayor Pat Kuhn said the anti-tobacco campaign should focus on securing other sponsorship money for the Saddle Club.

“If they don’t want it there, they should become part of the solution,” she said. “This is a big event for our community.”

Volunteers can seek sponsors

Loeser said the grant does not authorize the county agency to solicit sponsors, but that can be done by campaign volunteers. He said he hopes to set up additional meetings with the Saddle Club in the next few months. Other sponsors of the Oakdale Rodeo include Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Fireside Dodge and Western Warehouse. Wagner said he regards U.S. Smokeless Tobacco as a responsible corporate sponsor, but said he also understands the antitobacco effort. He is co-chairman of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Posse Rodeo, a Turlock event that rejects tobacco company sponsorships.

“It would be nice to work out an amicable solution,” he said.