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When is a U-turn a U-turn?

THE serpentine manoeuvres between Formula 1 racing, the tobacco companies and the European Commission continued in Melbourne when FIA President Max Mosley announced that the governing body could bring in a worldwide ban on tobacco advertising in Formula 1 as early as 2002.

Mosley reiterated that he was prepared to act as soon as the current Concorde Agreement expires at the end of 2001 if there is evidence that tobacco sponsorship in F1 leads to people starting smoking. "There is no point banning something for no good reason," Mosley said, "but we've always said if there is evidence that advertising does start people smoking we would do something. Without that evidence it's pointless. We've now been told by several governments and the by the World Health Organization that they can make such evidence available and the FIA therefore intends to study that evidence." We understand that the FIA World Council will consider the evidence within the next two or three months, probably at its meeting in June. The celebrated Lancet medical journal last year published a survey which linked tobacco sponsorship in motor racing with smoking amongst schoolboys in England and claimed that those who named the sport as their favorite were significantly more likely to smoke.

If the FIA does decide to ban tobacco advertising it would be a big boost for the anti-smoking lobby as it would come into effect before the 2006 deadline laid down in the proposed European anti-tobacco legislation and would be a global ban. "It would provide a powerful supplement to the EC Directive," Mosley said.

The announcement was considered by some to be an attempt by Mosley to be conciliatory towards the European Commission because of the attacks which have been made on the sport by the European Commissioner for Competition Karel Van Miert, who claims that the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone are abusing a dominant position. Others were not so sure and several condemned the move as political intrigue. "This is mischief and skullduggery designed to wreck the EC directive," said Clive Bates, director of the British-based Action on Smoking and Health organization. "It is quite likely that behind the scenes deals pushed by Germany mean that the Council of Ministers would now vote against the directive if given a second opportunity. There is speculation that Greece and Portugal have been under pressure to switch sides."

Amendments to the directive, which could be voted by European MPs when the proposals go before the European Parliament would mean that the directive would have to go back to the Council of Ministers. "If you look at it from the position of someone trying to wreck the directive and have no restrictions on tobacco sponsorship, what Mosley announced makes perfect sense," said Bates. Mosley denied this. "It is all very straightforward and simple," he said, "and it is difficult to understand why someone like Mr. Bates spends time saying there is an ulterior motive instead of sending us the evidence."

Mosley's announcement caused some consternation amongst tobacco companies both those already involved in Formula 1 and those considering an involvement. The Tobacco Manufacturers Association in London attacked Mosley. "We feel that the FIA has bowed to political pressure," said a spokesman. "All the evidence points to advertising not being linked to people starting smoking." Asked about the problems between the FIA and Van Miert, Mosley was curiously subdued. "I would like very much to discuss the question of the European Commission Competition department but having made one or two intemperate remarks the Commissioner in question has now stopped talking about the FIA and his officials are studying the dossier. Because he is no longer talking about us it is only fair that I should stop talking about him."

Bernie Ecclestone was less reticent. "If Van Miert was to be able to sit back and say: 'Forget all the things I have said' and if all these things were to be put to one side, as would normally happen in a business, I think that probably all the problems could be solved in 20 minutes. But maybe he doesn't want to solve them." Ecclestone added that if there was a link between the tobacco issue and the question of competition law it would be "completely out of order".

"The Commission is a monopoly," said Ecclestone. "If he is using that monopoly because of the tobacco issue that is an abuse of the position."

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