Why Formula 1 needs to pay attention to the WHO

Seventy-seven countries have now signed the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, including the world's two most populous countries: China and India. The 77 countries represent 3.8bn people around the world, which is more than 60% of the world's estimated population of 6.3bn people.

The signatory nations include countries from all the continents, from the developed world to the world's poorest places. And while high profile nations like the United States has yet to sign the deal, other countries do intend to sign, gradually edging towards a situation in which tobacco advertising becomes outlawed everywhere.

Tobacco has been Formula 1's big brother since the early 1970s, helping the sport to develop, helping the people in the sport to get rich but at the same time helping the tobacco industry to sell more cigarettes. Although banning advertising is in itself a controversial business, many would argue that if a product is legal to sell, it should be legal to advertise, most governments are coming to realize that banning tobacco advertising as lip service to the anti-tobacco campaigners and collecting the tax dollars derived from tobacco, is still not economic when one considers the savings that are made in healthcare by not having to treat to millions of patients who suffer from tobacco-related diseases.

Motor racing does not want to see tobacco advertising banned. The reasons for this are twofold: there is a strong belief in racing circles that people have a choice as to whether or not to smoke and should be allowed the freedom to make that choice; and secondly because tobacco companies will pay more for the space on a racing car than other companies simply because they have so few choices of where to spend their advertising dollars.

The sport is worried about how it is going to replace tobacco bucks.

It is possible that the sport can go on coercing and cajoling countries to let them continue to advertise tobacco but there comes a point at which the whole process becomes detrimental to the sport, when the image damage being done is more important that the money that is being invested. Just as governments are having to face up to the fact that it is better to save on healthcare and lose tobacco tax dollars, so motor racing must look to a point at which it is unwise to go on banging on the drum of the tobacco industry. To continue hand-in-hand (some would say hand-in-glove) with the tobacco barons could soon mean that perfectly good non-tobacco sponsors will be driven away from the sport. Already in recent months we have heard stories of non-tobacco F1 sponsors being unhappy about the image that F1 is creating by allying too closely with the tobacco industry against countries which ban tobacco advertising.

The whole premise of tobacco bans may be wrong, but there is a point at which the sport must look to the future, say thank you to the tobacco companies and move on to other sponsors. The FIA tried to suggest that a good moment would be in 2006 but for whatever reason was forced to turn that rule into a recommendation to avoid problems.

The federation is not perfect but it does understand that there will come a day when tobacco money has to stop and while the commercial people will fight for every dollar and not care about the damage that is done to the image of the sport, it is something which should now be considered before it becomes a serious issue.

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