JUNE 19, 2006

Tobacco advertising in Hungary

Hungary banned tobacco advertising in 1978 with a decree from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Formula 1 arrived in Budapest in 1986 and it was clear that pretty much anything was possible. But towards the end of the 1990s the Hungarians tightened the laws and in December 2000 the Hungarian Parliament voted for a ban.

The country signed up to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in June 2003 and ratified the treaty in April 2004. At the time the country was doing all the right things so that it would admitted to the European Union. That happened in May 2004, a move that allowed Hungarians to take advantage of the European markets, undercut the countries in the west. As a result of this Hungary has enjoyed strong economic growth but at the same time has the largest budget deficit in the EU. The need therefore was to cut government spending and increase taxes. Shortly after the country entered the EU, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy resigned, having failed to keep his coalition partners happy.

The ruling Hungarian Socialist Party picked Ferenc Gyurcsany to be the new leader and he was appointed Prime Minister. Earlier this year he led the party to victory in the parliamentary elections. Gyurcsany is a former minister of sport and understands very well the problems of tobacco advertising in Hungary but this has not stopped his government from deciding to ignore its commitments to the WHO treaty and the European Union ban on tobacco sponsorship which came into effect in August last year. The government has enacted a law which allows tobacco advertising to continue if the event is deemed to be important to the Hungarian economy. The government already funds the Grand Prix and knows that if tobacco is banned it will have to pay considerably more because of the terms of the contract with the Formula One group. That contract runs until 2011 and presumably the Hungarians are working on the idea that any problems that result from it ignoring its commitments can be dealt with later - perhaps by later governments.

But problems are coming as the EU has already announced that it take Hungary to the European Court of Justice if it does not fall into line. That process will not take five years.

It is odd that a government is willing to damage its reputation at international level by ignoring commitments made to gain what can only be seen as minor economic gains from a motor race.