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Rio Ferdinand criticised over advert linked to Asian tobacco firm

Manchester United footballer was unaware of company’s profits from cigarettes when he starred in adverts

Description: Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand meets his fans in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photograph: Achmad Ibrahim/AP

Footballer Rio Ferdinand, of Manchester United and England, is at the centre of a row over tobacco advertising after anti-smoking charities accused him of promoting a company that owns one of Asia’s biggest cigarette brands.

Ferdinand, an active supporter of the global children’s charity Unicef, appears in billboard advertisements and YouTube videoclips streamed in Indonesia that promoteGudang Garam International’s internet-based sports channel, Intersport, which broadcasts Premier League football matches and helps to raise the profile of English football in Asia.

GGI is one of Indonesia’s largest tobacco companies and its cigarettes, which are flavoured with spices such as cloves and cinnamon, are particularly popular with children.

A spokesman for the United player insisted that the footballer, a fervent anti-smoker, was not advertising tobacco but the sports channel. It appears that Ferdinand, who is only one of many international football stars to appear in the GGI ads, had been unaware that GGI, a conglomerate, makes a large amount of its profits from tobacco or that his image would be used on billboards which carry the cigarette brand logo. The spokesman said Ferdinand was consulting lawyers about the use of his image in the campaign.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking group Ash, said such sponsorship deals were banned in the UK because of concerns that they promoted cigarettes to young people. She called on Ferdinand to dissociate himself from GGI, particularly given his relationship with Unicef.

“Rio talks a good talk about ‘putting children first’ when he tweets for Unicef, but he has to put his money where his mouth is,” Arnott said. “Well over a third of 15-year-old boys in Indonesia smoke and smoking rates among the young have increased sixfold since 1995. Rio is estimated to be worth £40m and to earn more than £100,000 a week; does he really need to do this? I hope now he realises what he’s done he’ll apologise.”

The row has threatened to embroil Ferdinand’s club. Indonesia’s National Commission for Child Protection has written to United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, urging him “to have this unhealthy promotion removed immediately”.

In the YouTube videos, Ferdinand, wearing a red football kit similar to that of United and displaying the GGI corporate badge, describes how “football is everything and everything about football is only on Gudang Garam Intersport”. The final scene cuts to the Gudang Guram Intersport logo, which is then followed by the GudamGarang International logo and a tobacco health warning.

Tobacco firms worldwide are keen to cultivate the next generation of smokers, but their efforts are hampered by blanket advertising bans in Europe. However, no such laws apply in Indonesia, where GGI also operates a website promoting music which anti-smoking groups claim is another attempt to reach young people.

“I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Gudang Garam chose a Manchester United player to promote their brand sponsorship of Indonesian football, as the iconic Manchester United kit so closely resembles their own cigarette brand colours,” said Andrea Crossfield, the director of Tobacco Free Futures, which is leading the UK campaign for cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging.

“The tobacco industry thrives on marketing to young people through associating their brand with aspirational figures. The World Health Organisation predicts smoking will kill one billion people this century; this is an industry which uses manipulative marketing to hook kids worldwide into a lethal habit that kills one in two of every lifelong smoker – the vast majority of whom start smoking before the age of 18.”

Ian Gray, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s principal policy officer, said role models had a part to play in ensuring children were not encouraged to smoke. “We must be concerned about the prevalence of smoking internationally, particularly in the developing world, where it is a major killer,” Gray toldEnvironmental Health News. “It is particularly galling to see a prominent UK celebrity recognised by young football supporters the world over participating in such a distasteful and ill-advised campaign.”

A spokeswoman for United said: “The contractual agreement between Rio and Gudang Garam Intersports runs to 31 October 2012, at which time all forms of advertising will cease. Both Manchester United and Rio Ferdinand are sorry for this misunderstanding and will endeavour to ensure that it is not repeated in the future.”

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