Features - Feature

MAY 5, 2005

Stubbing out cigarette money in F1

Some of the Formula 1 teams seem to be in denial at the moment over the question of tobacco sponsorship. They are talking about seeking clarification from the new British government about the latest anti-smoking legislation which arrives at the end of July this year,

Some of the Formula 1 teams seem to be in denial at the moment over the question of tobacco sponsorship. They are talking about seeking clarification from the new British government about the latest anti-smoking legislation which arrives at the end of July this year, when the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act of 2002 and its transtional provisions take effect. The only hope is that the government will be willing to pass some legislation in the next few weeks to let the teams off the hook. It is possible that the Labour Party might risk such a move, having been returned to power with a new majority, but the politicians will be mindful of the 1997 scandal involving Prime Minister Tony Blair and a contribution to party funds from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

Turning a blind eye to the legislation is not going to work because Britain's active anti-smoking lobby will be in court quickly if they see that the law has been broken. Thus a change in the law is the only way and there is a risk that such as issue would split the new government down the middle.

The problem is a document called the British Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002 (Transitional Provisions), which states that "a person who is party to a sponsorship agreement is guilty of an offence if the purpose or effect of anything done as a result of the agreement is to promote a tobacco product in the United Kingdom".

It does not matter where in the world this has happened.

And the punishment is not a smack on the wrist or a fine, it is prison. Two years and the criminal record that goes with a stay in one of Her Majesty's prisons. The big question is who would be covered by the definition of "a party to". It obviously applies to anyone who signs a sponsorship agreement but it could be deemed to apply to anyone who knowingly assisted in the production of tobacco images on British TV and that could include drivers, cameramen, editors, satellite companies, race promoters, lawyers who drafted contracts, racing teams and even the mechanics who puts the cars on to the track.

Anyone who is aware of the law is liable.

It may be that the courts will rule that liability is limited to specific categories of person but if you are one of the people at risk, are you going to risk two years in jail, fines, legal bills, loss of employment and the rest of it, in the hope that the lawyers will convince the judges to make exceptions? Is Bernie Ecclestone willing to risk two years inside?

The law applies specifically to businesses and individuals who are based in Britain and thus come under British law, which means that all the teams with tobacco backing, apart from Ferrari are at risk, specifically British American Racing, Renault F1, West McLaren Mercedes and Jordan F1. It seems clear that McLaren and Jordan are going to drop their tobacco sponsorships at the end of July but BAR and Renault remain. And even if they back down (the teams, after all, cannot be relocated outside the UK) there is still a problem with Ferrari.

And if there are any doubts that such laws can be effective one needs only to go to France where the anti-smoking Comite Nationale Contre le Tabagisme is constantly taking offenders to court to uphold the Loi Evin, France's anti-smoking law. Magazines are now forced to blur tobacco images in photographs published and blurring also occurs in the TV coverage of F1 races.

Weaning the sport off tobacco is a necessity, but tobacco and F1 teams have long had a special relationship. For the last 37 years the sport has provided tobacco companies with a way to promote their brands when other forms of advertising were banned. The tobacco barons have provided the money that has made motor racing the strong sport that it is today. It was a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

The first major tobacco sponsor was the first truly commercial sponsor in F1 racing. That was back in 1968 and prior to that commercial sponsorship was frowned upon in what was always considered to be a sport of gentlemen. Things had to change and despite the inevitable opposition to change from the FIA, finally attitudes altered sufficiently to allow Team Lotus to run Gold Leaf-branded cars for Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver at Monaco in 1968. Gold Leaf's parent company Imperial Tobacco would remain in the sport for many years, switching to JPS branding in 1972. That same year the American giant Philip Morris did a major deal with BRM to run cars in Marlboro colours. In 1973 Imperial decided to use a second brand, Embassy, to support Graham Hill's nascent F1 team. The snowball of tobacco was beginning.

Marlboro was not very happy with BRM and in 1974 switched to McLaren and then in 1976 France's national tobacco company SEITA entered the sport with Gitanes branding on the Ligier team. Switzerland's Villiger was next in 1978 followed by another Philip Morris brand (Chesterfield). By 1980 the Italian state tobacco company, MS, signed up with Osella. And so it went on as audiences grew so more money arrived from the likes of Camel, Barclay, West, Mild Seven and Benson & Hedges.

The companies all invested heavily and success, such as Marlboro enjoyed in the successful years with McLaren, has brought enormous amounts of coverage. But at the same time the anti-tobacco lobby was growing stronger. As long ago as 1990 the European Parliament voted in favour of a European ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship. The tobbaco barons called it a new form of prohibition and argued that sponsorship did not start people smoking but it did not stop the legislators.

By June 1996 the World Health Organisation was protesting that Grand Prix racing was a "non-stop commercial" for cigarettes and that races were "venues for the recruitment of new smokers". The WHO called for a worldwide ban on "broadcasts of tobacco advertising masquerading as sports sponsorship".

For the average motor racing folk the arguments are not very interesting. It is difficult to understand how one can ban the advertising of a product but still be allowed to sell it. Logic dictates that if a product is bad for you one should not be allowed to sell it. But governments are not always logical. They like the tax dollars that tobacco brings but at the same time like to be seen to be doing the right thing - to keep the voters happy. They want their cake and they want to eat it. Europe's attitude is even more twisted because for many years the European Union has paid out vast sums of money every year to support the inefficient tobacco farmers of Europe. Half the tobacco produced by the EU's farmers was sold cheaply in Eastern Europe and North Africa because it was not good enough for the western markets. And there were always suggestions of massive frauds, a view which was strengthened considerably in 1993 when a former head of the tobacco division of the European Commission's agricultural directorate mysteriously fell out of a sixth floor window in Brussels - just days before he was to be questioned by investigators.

There are some who argue that the time has come for F1 to stop its love affair with tobacco and that the remaining tobacco teams should cut their links with the cigarette industry. Some of the other teams argue that it is necessary because they have discovered many other big sponsors which would be happy to come into F1 if there was no tobacco. The FIA is recommending that tobacco sponsorships stop at the end of 2006 but the federation cannot enforce a ban because that would mean dabbling in commercial matters and that might lead to problems with the European Commission.

Meanwhile Ferrari has announced the intention to continue with Marlboro money until at least 2010 (assuming that the team is still around). This is odd in that on September 11 2001, representatives of Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco met in New York and agreed on a document called the International Tobacco Products Marketing Standards which defined the minimum restrictions which the companies agree to place on themselves worldwide. The document includes a commitment to end all sports sponsorships on December 1 2006 on the understanding that the sport involved requires "above-average physical fitness for someone of the age group of those taking part".

Not surprisingly, given the date and location, that event did not get much media coverage but that does not mean that the document does not exist.