Does tobacco sponsorship encourage smoking? This is the vexed, multi-million dollar question Hong Kong sport has been left grappling with as a pack of cigarette companies announced earlier this month that they are quitting - or are on the verge of ending - long-term relationships. The link between tobacco sponsorship and fostering a smoking habit resulted in a controversial bill being passed through Legco last June barring cigarette companies from advertising their sporting events. Tennis, soccer and volleyball are the three sports most hit by the tobacco giants pulling out their money in the face of the anti-tobacco advertising ban. The Marlboro Man has riden into the sunset with a racquet strapped to his saddle. Kent have spiked their volleyballs. Salem and Viceroy have indicated that they, too, will soon stub out their sponsorship in tennis and soccer respectively. Once the smoke clears - by 1999 a total advertising ban will be in place - Hong Kong sport will confront a vacuum and a funding crisis. Where will they find the millions of dollars pumped in by the cigarette firms? Last year alone, the Marlboro Tennis Championships, the Salem Open, the Viceroy Cup and Kent Beach Volleyball were estimated to have attracted more than $50 million in sponsorship, corporate hospitality and advertising funds. 'No other sponsors have this sort of big budgets. We are talking of big bucks,' said beach volleyball promoter Des McGahan. Brian Catton, the man behind the Marlboro Championships, adds: 'It is going to be difficult in the current climate finding a sponsor with the sort of budget the cigarette companies have.' Sports officials, while silent on the moral issue raised by cigarette sponsorship, are critical that the Hong Kong Government has not provided an alternative to tobacco money. 'The Government should have stepped in and helped out,' said tennis official Ed Hardisty. 'Maybe it should become the mandate of the lotteries commission to give part of the Mark Six money to sport.' Sports Development Board chief executive Andrew Ma revealed that his organisation had presented the Government with a couple of options - to put in place a tobacco levy or a sports lottery. 'Their response was lukewarm,' said Ma. Senior government official Chau Tak-hay has also announced that the Government would not get involved. This will leave sport begging around for funds to host crowd-pleasing events. In the minds of the Hong Kong Government, the answer to a link between tobacco sponsorship and smoking is a simple 'yes'. In January last year, Dr Leong Che-hong put forward a motion to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship. This bill was passed six months later, leaving sporting bodies to label it as a 'dark day for Hong Kong sport'. No one disputes that smoking is bad for your health. Even those sports promoters concur that smoking is detrimental. But what Catton and company argue is that as long as cigarettes are a legal product, then tobacco companies should have the right to continue advertising their products. 'Are we going to ban promotions for beer? Whisky? Dairy products?,' asked Catton. 'The bottom line is that cigarettes are a legal product.' But health campaigners are adamant that tobacco and sport do not mix. 'The fact is that the tobacco industry knows perfectly well that sporting events are a very effective vehicle for the promotion of tobacco to young people,' said Professor Anthony Hedley, chairman of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health. The moral issue is one which sport does not wish to get involved with. Unfortunately, that has been the crux of the matter, and one which has proved to be a popular bandwagon for the anti-smoking lobby to jump on. 'Sport has become the scapegoat. No one has come up with a viable alternative to funding. 'Ban tobacco? Well fine, but something should have been put in place before it all happened,' said McGahan. A phase-out ban - say over 10 years - might have helped sport to come to terms with the loss of their generous sponsors. But the divorce, instigated by the Government, has been quick - and painful. Sport can now repent in leisure.