The Tobacco Free Sports campaign

THE World Health Organization today launched its Tobacco Free Sports initiative with WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland being joined by FIA President Max Mosley and representatives from a variety of other international sporting organizations, notably the International Olympic Committee and the Federation Internationale des Football Associations (FIFA). In addition there were a number of sportsmen and women present including Cameroon soccer star Roger Milla, four-time Olympic speedskating gold medalist Johann Koss, Olympic rower Giuseppe Abbagnale and Muffy Davis, a Paralympic bronze medalist with the US Disabled Ski Team.

The launch coincided with the third round of negotiations for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which, if ratified, will be the first legally-binding international treaty on tobacco control.

The WHO is keen to stop all tobacco advertising in stadia and sports arenas worldwide, arguing that tobacco sponsorship is aimed at trying to attract a young audience who are interested in sport.

The FIA said last year that it supports the initiative and has said that if the Framework Convention can be agreed it will introduce a global ban on all tobacco sponsorship in motor sport at the end of the 2006 season. Tobacco companies are currently reckoned to be spending as much as $350m a year in racing and rallying and so such a move would have a very big effect on the sport unless other sources of sponsorship can be found. At the moment 15 of the 17 races in the F1 calendar allow some form of tobacco advertising and so any national bans are largely irrelevant as television pictures continue to be beamed into countries which have tobacco advertising bans. It is clear that the only way for this to be stopped is with an international initiative and the FIA was convinced to change its stance after the 1999 World Health Assembly of the WHO agreed unanimously that tobacco advertising and sponsorship should be banned.

Progress on the Framework Convention has, however, been slow. The process began a year ago with public hearings and there was a second gathering in May to discuss draft proposals put forward by the WHO. The organization says that it hopes to have a treaty finalized by 2003 but there are still a lot of hurdles to be overcome on questions such the taxation on tobacco companies, government subsidies and new laws against tobacco smugglers.

The European Union, for example, pays out around $1bn a year to support tobacco farmers while at the same time banning advertising of they produce. Half the tobacco produced by the EU's farmers is of such poor quality that it is sold cheaply in Eastern Europe and North Africa leaving European cigarette makers to import the majority of their tobacco. Suggestions that this arrangement should be terminated are met with panic in the agricultural directorate at the European Commission because thousands of farmers would be put out of business.

Experience in countries where tobacco advertising is banned shows that the real damage is done at grassroots level, notably in single seater racing such as Formula Ford 1600 and Formula 3. France introduced anti-tobacco legislation as long ago as 1993 and effectively wiped out its motor racing industry by doing so. Today there is only one French driver left in F1 and Olivier Panis is one of the oldest drivers in F1. There are no obvious replacements because young French drivers get to Formula 3000 level and then run out of money to break into F1. There is an entire lost generation now competing in sportscars and other sundry series.

The FIA reckons that other money will be found to replace tobacco but there are many in racing who are not quite so sure - and are worried that the sport will take a massive hit if cigarette money dries up.

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