Doctor presses the case against tobacco scholarships

A San Luis Obispo doctor is continuing to speak out against Cal Poly for allowing students to accept scholarships from the smokeless tobacco industry as prize awards in collegiate rodeo events.

University officials say Cal Poly has no basis to deny students scholarship funds from a legal source, and university officials note that no tobacco-related advertising is allowed at school events under a campus policy. Five years ago, Cal Poly officials supported creating a fund that could be an alternative to tobacco-industry scholarships, but that idea was rejected by tobacco opponents.

Stephen L. Hansen, a physician and representative of the county Tobacco Control Coalition, said he’s outraged that the chewing tobacco industry lures students to a cancer-causing product through scholarships — and he wants to keep up the pressure on university officials to disallow it.

Hansen was a leader of a group of tobacco-industry opponents five years ago that tried to stop the university from allowing students to take U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. scholarships.

He became active after seeing the effects of cancer in his patients and was motivated by his belief that corporate profits often drive companies to encourage unhealthy habits.

“Tobacco has no place on college campuses,” Hansen said. “Tobacco money perverts the message of good health wherever it’s present.”

But Cal Poly officials said that it’s not the university’s place to tell students how they might consider scholarship money, regardless of the company behind it.

“The university’s position is that there is no legal or ethical basis for Cal Poly to bar adult students from receiving scholarship funding awarded to them from a legal funding source,” said Dan Howard-Greene, Cal Poly President Warren Baker’s chief of staff.

U.S. Smokeless Tobacco had been contributing $200,000 per year to the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association until the business was purchased by the tobacco corporation Altria last year, according to NIRA officials. Altria owns brand names such as Marlboro, Copenhagen and Skoal.

The rodeo association now is in negotiations with Altria about continued funding of the scholarship program, NIRA spokeswoman Sarah Neely said.

Neely said the scholarships serve a positive role in helping students with their education costs. Altria officials couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment about Hansen’s criticisms.

Cal Poly rodeo participants typically receive about $4,000 to $8,000 total each year in smokeless tobacco scholarship awards from events, university officials said, and stand to take in as much as $30,000 in all.

Hansen said local tobacco opponents approached Cal Poly and offered to provide replacement funding for the tobacco-industry scholarships a few years ago.

But Hansen said the group backed out when Cal Poly officials wanted assurance of ongoing, long-term funding in the same amount that the tobacco industry could provide.

Howard-Greene said Cal Poly was willing to help the coalition establish the fund as an alternative to a tobacco-industry scholarship, but the students would have decided if they wanted to accept the money from either source.

Hansen said the proposal didn’t accomplish the coalition’s goal of keeping tobacco money away from university students.

Baker joined in a letter to the collegiate rodeo association in August 2005 with the presidents of Cal Poly Pomona and Fresno State University urging NIRA to end its association with the smokeless tobacco industry, Howard-Greene said.

But NIRA Commissioner John Smith wrote back a month later thanking the three presidents for their input but indicating NIRA’s intent to continue receiving sponsorship support from the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, Howard-Greene said.

South Dakota State University has denied funding from the tobacco industry and set up a replacement fund, but it’s the only university rodeo team that has done so, said Kim Homer Vagadori, a tobacco prevention coordinator for the California Youth Advocacy Network.