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MAY 18, 1998

Europe's tobacco laws edge forward

THE European Parliament has voted in favor of legislation to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship throughout the European Union. The legislation, which was agreed by the European Health Ministers in December, passed through the European Parliament in Strasbourg without amendment last week.

The proposed law must now go back to the European Council of Ministers for confirmation but there is unlikely to be any change as the draft directive was not amended. This is likely to happen within the next few weeks.

While seen as a defeat for the tobacco industry, the passage of the legislation was much easier than expected and observers have concluded that those against the ban - both tobacco companies and the German and Austrian governments - have decided to wait until the law comes into being and then try to overturn it in the law courts.

They have a very strong argument because last month the European Parliament Legal Affairs Committee declared the ban illegal because it favored one media over another, differentiating between magazines and television. This may work but the European Commission remains convinced that the legislation will survive attacks.

The anti-tobacco legislation remains a triumph of political correctness over logic, as the European Commission continues to pour money into the industry with vast subsidies for tobacco farmers who produce 350,000 tons of tobacco a year in Italy, Greece, Spain, France and Germany. The subsidies cost the European Union about $1.6bn a year.

In the past there have been allegations that payments to tobacco farmers by the European Commission have been the source of enormous fraud and it did not help when Antonio Quantraro, an Italian official in charge of the tobacco section at the European Commission's agricultural directorate, died in mysterious circumstances after falling out of a sixth storey window at his office in Brussels just days before he was due to give evidence in a fraud enquiry.