- - Thursday, November 24, 2011

TOKYO — Anti-smoking campaigners in Japan are accusing one of the world’s leading tobacco companies of marketing products to teenage girls at World Cup volleyball events here.

Japan Tobacco’s logo (JT) is on the national team uniforms, court-side digital billboards, TV ads and “gift” packages handed out to schoolgirls, mothers and children entering Yoyogi National Stadium and arenas across Japan during the World Cup, which runs until Dec. 4.

While the United States, European Union and other industrialized countries have long banned tobacco companies from sponsoring sporting events, Japan Tobacco has been a major promoter of volleyball, helping to make the sport popular among schoolgirls. Japan has hosted every World Cup since 1977, and three of the last four world championships.

Japan Tobacco also sponsors a national team starring the country’s top player, Yoshie Takeshita.

About 10 percent of Japanese women smoke, compared with 40 percent of men, according to government estimates.

Anti-smoking activists have long accused Japanese volleyball groups of promoting tobacco use, and say JT is targeting young women.

“I was amazed to see our supposed national team wearing gear promoting Japan Tobacco,” Manabu Sakuta, a Tokyo doctor who heads the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, said of a recent televised World Cup match. “This is complete nonsense. It seems that they are not a national team, but a Japan Tobacco team.”

Mahoko Tsuchiya, manager of media and investor relations at Japan Tobacco in Tokyo, said in an email that all JT activities “are conducted in full compliance with the law.”

Smoking is legal and common in bars, family restaurants, playgrounds and hotel rooms in Japan.

In addition, Japan’s Finance Ministry owns more than 50 percent of shares in Japan Tobacco, which have risen about 30 percent this year.

The World Health Organization says smoking kills about 6 million people a year, including 600,000 non-smokers. The European Union banned tobacco ads on TV in 1991, and at international sporting events in 2005.

The International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB), based in Lausanne, Switzerland, referred calls to chief press officer Richard Baker, who did not reply to phone and email queries.

Hiroshi Takeuchi, FIVB press commission president, said the FIVB will study the issue “with some experts in this area in order to avoid possible further misunderstanding.”

“JT is a multi-products company and they are our sponsor as the beverage category for this World Cup,” he said in an email. “According to the Japanese national regulations, JT beverage may not be considered as tobacco category even though they have the same JT brand.”

Japan Tobacco’s website trumpets the company’s social activism, saying it donated about $40,000 to flood victims in Thailand and $40,000 to earthquake victims in Turkey.

“The mission of the JT Group is to create, develop and nurture its unique brands to win consumer trust, while understanding and respecting the environment, and the diversity of societies and individuals,” the website states.

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