At a May 27 news conference, Riverbend officials announced they had dropped sponsorships by smokeless tobacco vendors and expanded no-smoking zones, crediting the changes to anti-smoking advocacy.
They left out something else.
Last October, the state attorney general’s office sent a sternly worded letter to Riverbend’s marketing director, seeking to “draw your attention to a few provisions of the law” before organizers began selecting vendors and advertisers for this year’s festival.
The letter cites federal legislation that prohibits what Riverbend allowed last year — smokeless tobacco vendors handing out free merchandise and samples a few feet away from the Children’s Village play area.
At the news conference, Friends of the Festival Executive Director Chip Baker did not mention any communication between Friends of the Festival and the attorney general.
The announcement about banning tobacco vendors was held “until there was a certain amount of, for lack of a better word, buzz, about Riverbend,” said Baker, who also serves on the Hamilton County Board of Education, said Wednesday.
When asked if there was a particular reason the attorney general’s letter was not mentioned at the news conference, he said “not from my standpoint.”
The attorney general’s letter, dated Oct. 21, also points out that, under state law, “[n]o person shall distribute tobacco product samples in or on any public street, sidewalk or park.”
Riverbend is held on the 21st Century Waterfront along the Tennessee River, which is considered public park grounds, records show.
Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general’s office, said someone filed a complaint against Riverbend late last summer, spurring the office to write the letter.
“We’ll be monitoring this year,” Curtis-Flair said. “I don’t want to get into techniques or inside information, that kind of thing.”
Subsequent violations could bring civil penalties and a requirement to pay for the state’s legal fees and investigation, Curtis-Flair said.
Baker said this year’s disinvitation to tobacco vendors “wasn’t just about the [attorney general’s] letter” and that festival staffers were “well on the path” to changing tobacco policy as early as last summer.
Baker said Riverbend staff is “responsible and responsive and [trying] to do our homework.” He said he was unaware of both state laws until he read the letter.
Tobacco distributors Camel, USA Gold and Longhorn were not asked back this year, costing the festival $45,000 in sponsorship revenue, Baker said, and the money wasn’t recovered before the festival started on Friday.
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