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Britain torpedoes European tobacco ban

THE British government has destroyed all hopes of a European tobacco sponsorship ban in the face of threats from the FIA that it will pull Grand Prix racing out of the European Union if a ban goes ahead. The British motor sport industry employs around 50,000 people and has an annual turnover of around $2.5bn of which over 40% is in the form of export. Without tobacco income of around $170m many of these jobs would be lost and the industry would suffer.

The Labour Party has long campaigned for a tobacco advertising ban. In its manifesto it said: "smoking is the greatest single cause of preventable illness and premature death in the UK. We will therefore ban tobacco advertising."

After Labour won the General Election in May Health Secretary Frank Dobson confirmed that the new government would push ahead with a tobacco ban and would support a European ban as well.

"We recognize that some sports are heavily dependent on tobacco sponsorship," he said, "and we don't want to harm these sports, but they must recognize that by helping promote the sales of tobacco they are harming the health of their own spectators."

At the start of October, however, FIA President Max Mosley circulated a letter to European governments pointing out that the FIA was against a proposed ban after a three-year grace period in which the sport would be able to find new sponsors.

Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone met British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street on October 16 to discuss the ban and 10 days later at the Grand Prix of Europe Mosley announced details of the FIA's plan to pull out of Europe.

Labour party officials then decided that Grand Prix racing would have to be exempted from any ban and Tessa Jowell, the Public Health Minister, wrote to the other European Health Ministers, indicating that Britain would only support the ban if F1 was not covered by it. The justification for this was that F1 was unique in that if it went outside Europe TV images of tobacco advertising would still be beamed back into European countries because European governments have no power to stop television transmission of races abroad.

"The end result could be that we see more tobacco advertising on our television screens rather than less," Jowell said. "We are faced with a choice between a grand gesture and effective policy that works. What matters is that we actually achieve a policy which doesn't threaten F1 in this country or throughout Europe, but also achieves our public health objective of safeguarding and protecting young people."

Jowell said that the government intends to work with the FIA to regulate the level of tobacco advertising on a worldwide scale - and Mosley said that F1 would eliminate tobacco advertising completely if there was an "independent and scientific study" which could show that "tobacco company logos appearing at F1 races cause people to start smoking".

Reaction to the news was dramatic with European Union Social Affairs Commissioner Padraig Flynn condemning the decision. "If there were no tobacco advertising on racing cars, other sponsors would soon come forward," he said. "There would be no loss of this sport to Europe at all."

The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association welcomed the news but said that the exemption should be extended to other sports while the European Magazine Publishers' Federation called for a stop to all tobacco advertising bans.

There was anger from many other British sports who called for the government to scrap the ban on all sports and not single out Grand Prix racing for preferential treatment. Anti-smoking groups were appalled by the news. The Royal Colleges of Physicians called the decision "deplorable" and the British Medical Association condemned F1's "blackmail threat" and concluded that "an unholy alliance of the tobacco manufacturers and the F1 organizers has put the government in an impossible position." The anti-smoking group ASH said that "the tobacco industry and F1 have heavied the government by threatening to take events from Europe", and said that "the bluff should have been called."

The backlash resulted in the revelation that Tessa Jowell is the wife of David Mills, a former director of Benetton Formula. Mills is well-known in motor racing circles and has worked closely not only with Benetton but also with Bernie Ecclestone. He resigned from Benetton after Jowell was appointed Public Health Minister, recognizing that there was a conflict of interest. Jowell received clearance from Department of Health for her participation in the work because of her husband's links with the sport.

There was uproar in the House of Commons on Thursday with the opposition's Leader of the House Gillian Shephard calling for a full debate on the issue and other Conservative politicians demanding action over what they considered to be "impropriety" in the dealings.

Opposition health spokesman John Maples has written to the Cabinet Secretary asking for an investigation into the "disturbing story of an apparent ministerial conflict of interest".

The Sunday newspapers in London were full of further allegations with suggestions that both Mosley and Ecclestone have made sizable donations to the Labour Party in recent years. Mosley was revealed to have been a member of Labour's Thousand Club since 1989. To qualify for membership contributors must donate at least 1000 a year. The membership of the Thousand Club is published annually.

Ecclestone was also said to have contributed to a blind trust for Blair. A Labour Party spokesman said that any large donation will be made public at the time of the party conference.

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