Marlboro, the top-selling cigarette brand in the world, is getting into running.
The iconic American brand says it is launching a half-marathon franchise, officially called the Marlboro 13.1 Smokin' Fast Half Series. Events are planned in six major U.S. cities this year, with plans to increase that to a dozen or more in 2018.
The announcement came yesterday at a kickoff event in Richmond, Virginia, where the company hosted a 5K fun run and passed out free cigarettes along with steep discounts on Smokin' Fast race entries.
While a cigarette maker may seem an unlikely sponsor for a sports event, the idea isn't without precedent, says Christopher Buckley, a spokesman for Marlboro parent company Philip Morris USA.
"Marlboro has been heavily involved in motor racing for decades," said Buckley, "having sponsored teams in Formula One, IndyCar, and Grand Prix motorcycle racing."
"Plus, remember that whole Virginia Slims-tennis thing?" he said. "There was that."
As running continues to grow in popularity and tobacco sales continue to shrink, Buckley said, the Smokin' Fast Half Series seemed like a natural next step.
The tobacco giant was encouraged, he added, by the success of the Snickers Marathon and Half Marathon in Albany, Georgia.
"I mean, if a candy bar can have a marathon..." he said, with laughter that led to a coughing fit.
While Marlboro's events will be open to all, they are "designed to appeal to today's active smoker," the company said in a statement.
So while the races will offer the usual amenities—tech shirts, numerous aid stations, a finish-line festival—they will also add some unique twists, such as a finisher's medal that doubles as an ash tray and discounted rates at area hotels that accommodate smokers.
Smoking will even be encouraged during the race, according to the statement—each event will include tobacco-friendly start and finish areas, plus two Smoke Zones® along the course where competitors can pause to light up.
With entry fees starting at $100, the events will not be cheap. But, as Buckley was quick to point out, "a portion of the proceeds" will benefit the race series' charity partner, the American Lung Association.