Targa officials perplexed over tobacco sponsorship accusation

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on September 1, 2012
Zahir Rana likes to wear his racing suit, previously worn by Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello, at events. But because he wore it at Targa last year, the event is being investigated for prohibited tobacco sponsorship. - Photo courtesy of Zahir Rana

Targa Newfoundland organizers are scratching their heads and scrambling as they face a federal investigation into possible tobacco advertising.

Robert Giannou, president of Targa, said they've been getting a steady slough of calls from the Health Canada Tobacco Control Program.

Giannou said they aren't sponsored by any cigarette companies, and the whole thing seems to be a very inconvenient misunderstanding involving a sentimental suit and a half-submerged Ferrari.

Last year, driver Zahir Rana - driving a Ferrari Enzo - went off the road and into the water. Photos of him standing on the bank looking at his wrecked super car were circulated across the country and around the world.

The thing is, Rana was wearing a bright red Formula 1 racing suit - once owned and worn by driver Rubens Barrichello - which has a big Marlboro logo on the back.

"It was never intended to advertise cigarettes. For me it's a special suit from a special man," Rana said. "I wear it and it makes me feel great."

Rana has worn the suit many times before, including at a "Race the Base" event he's done at the Canadian Forces Cold Lake base, where he races his Ferrari Enzo against an Air Force jet to raise money for charity.

He wore the Barrichello suit at the Race the Base event earlier this month, and he wore it at the same event two years ago.

"I had a ton of media coverage. I was on CBC national, I was on Discovery Channel for a 15-minute documentary," Rana said. "I had so much press on that, and I wore my suit and my hat and nobody ever said anything about that."

He said the idea Targa is being investigated for tobacco sponsorship is just "stupid."

Race organizers don't think too highly of it either, but it's causing them a significant headache.

Giannou said they've been getting a steady stream of aggressive, accusatory phone calls from the federal government.

They haven't received a formal request from the investigator, but Giannou said they're more than happy to turn over their financial books, which would show Targa gets no money from Marlboro or any other cigarette company.

Instead, the investigator who keeps calling is talking about coming down during Targa this year, Giannou said, and interviewing competitors and organizers.

He said he's worried about that, because everybody is really busy while the event is underway, and the whole thing could be really disruptive.

"If I was suspicious enough, I would say someone is looking for a trip to Newfoundland to see Targa," Giannou said.

A spokesman for Health Canada declined to comment on the specifics of the Targa situation, except to confirm it is aware a tobacco logo was being displayed during the 2011 event.

"When Health Canada receives a complaint, or becomes aware of a situation where Health Canada inspectors have reasonable grounds to believe that the act has been contravened, the inspectors assess compliance and follow up appropriately," the spokesman said. "Health Canada's first response is to promote compliance. In the case of an observed contravention of the promotion restrictions under the Tobacco Act, inspectors have the authority to issue warnings or refer the case for prosecution."

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