Tobacco and Tennis

October 6, 2021

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Slims Women’s Tennis Circuit, the first sport event named for a cigarette brand. To mark the occasion, The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, which is part of UA’s College of Community Health Sciences, curated an exhibition that explores the rise in popularity of the Virginia Slims Circuit, as well as the rise in lung cancer and other adverse health conditions among women who smoke.

The online exhibition, “Fault: Tennis, Tobacco, and Virginia Slims,” is available to view at Fault. The exhibition was designed by Kevin Bailey, the center’s digital archivist and collection manager.

Dr. Alan Blum, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society and the Gerald Leon Wallace, MD, Endowed Chair of Family Medicine for CCHS, said it took a year to create the exhibition, which has more than 240 items from the center’s collection and includes audio clips that introduce several of the sections. The exhibition tracks the evolution of the Virginia Slims tour and efforts by Doctors Ought to Care and other organizations to remove tobacco sponsorship of sports.

Created in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1970, the Virginia Slims Tennis Circuit was a response to the underpayment of women athletes, but also a marketing opportunity for cigarette maker Philip Morris to promote a new cigarette brand aimed at women.

By the late 1960s, in spite of the growing popularity of women’s professional tennis, most tournaments offered far less prize money to women than to men. The U.S. Lawn Tennis Associated failed to organize any tournaments for women in 1970. And in August of that year, after the prestigious Pacific Southwest Open announced it would offer women players a twelfth of the prize money it was offering men, nine women players boycotted the event.

Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine, and Santa Fe resident Joe Cullman, chair of the Philip Morris board of directors, helped these players organize a separate professional women’s tennis circuit of eight tournaments in 1970 sponsored by Philip Morris’s new cigarette brand, Virginia Slims. The first Virginia Slims Circuit tournament was held in Houston on Sept. 23, 1970. The 1971 circuit featured 40 players competing in 19 tournaments.

The Virginia Slims of Houston tournament, the cornerstone of the circuit, was held from 1972 to 1995. Billie Jean King, the most famous of the original nine players who boycotted the Pacific Southwest Open, would later become a member of the Philip Morris board.

Virginia Slims cigarettes were launched by Philip Morris in 1968. A decade later, and following creation of the Virginia Slims Women’s Tennis Circuit, the cigarette brand had garnered a 1.75% market share, with an upward of 3.9% among women. In the 1970s, 1% of the cigarette market was the equivalent of 240 million packs. Today, Virginia Slims, though not well promoted, still has a market share of approximately 1.5%.

“Fault: Tennis, Tobacco, and Virginia Slims” is a sequel to the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society’s exhibition “Sports + Cigarettes = A Losing Team,” which was on view at the Paul W. “Bear” Bryant Museum on the UA campus in 2020-21. An online version is available at Sports and Cigarettes.

In addition, the center will display an exhibition of cigarette advertising aimed at women to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October and Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November. The exhibit, “Mild as May: How Tobacco Companies Sold Women a Pack of Lies,” will be on view in October and November at the Northeast Medical Building on the UA campus and is also available online at Mild as May.

The Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society holds the world’s largest collection of original materials related to the tobacco industry, including newspaper and television coverage, books, rare advertising, photographs and promotional artifacts that document promotion of tobacco products and the history of efforts to combat smoking.