A Washington-based anti-smoking group is fuming over the decision of Rock Creek Park officials to play host to a Virginia Slims women's tennis tournament in late August.
The group, Action on Smoking and Health, is calling for members of Congress and other organizations to help "stop this blatant abuse of historic park land to help sell a deadly product," namely Virginia Slims cigarettes.
Huffed Virginia Slims spokeswoman Sheila Banks:
"We have these anti-smoking zealots who want everyone to feel the way they do, not thinking about those thousands of people who enjoy the tennis at the Virginia Slims tournament every year."
Rock Creek Park Superintendent Rolland Swain said cigarette sponsorship of the tennis tournament doesn't violate park regulations.
"What we have in our regulations is specific language forbiding advertising in the parks . . . so they can't say, 'Buy this brand of cigarettes' nor can they distribute samples," Swain said. He said it is permissible, however, for the cigarette maker to use its name in connection with the tennis tournament held in the park.
"That doesn't mean we are promoting smoking," added National Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley.
This year's dispute is the latest in the group's anti-smoking advocacy efforts. The organization has an estimated 70,000 contributors nationwide, said John Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University who started the legal action group in 1967. He said his group has a 10-person staff and $1 million annual budget.
As part of its effort to stop the Virginia Slims tournament from being held at Rock Creek Park, The group sent out news releases and asked members of a congressional anti-smoking group to express their concern about the use of national park land for the cigarette-sponsored tournament.
George Washington University was host of the Virginia Slims tournament last year despite an anti-smoking lobby that won support from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis L. Sullivan.
Sullivan took on Philip Morris, the parent company of Virginia Slims, saying that the Virginia Slims tournament was backed by "blood money." He complained that the cigarette funding was fostering a misleading impression that smoking is compatible with good health.
Banzhaf said it may be too late to stop this year's Virginia Slims tournament in Rock Creek Park, "but I think it will not be done again."
Swain said his office is preparing the permit that tournament sponsors need for parking and traffic during the tournament, which is scheduled for Aug. 19 through 25 in the park's tennis center.
The tournament will go forward as planned, Swain said, because the Park Service, which oversees Rock Creek Park, signed an agreement in 1989 with the Washington Tennis Foundation providing for a women's tennis tournament to be held in the park. The foundation then arranged for Virginia Slims to sponsor the women's tennis tournament, Swain said.