Britain Snuffs Tobacco Ads in Sports

Labour also seeks ban on cigarette ads in newspapers, billboards

In waging an all-out war on tobacco advertising, Britain's new Labour government has angered not only cigarettemakers but sports organizations as well.

Labour's move, announced May 19, surprised even some party stalwarts by banning sports sponsorships linked to cigarette brands as part of a general ban. Many sporting bodies depend on such advertising money.

Unlike tobacco manufacturers in the United States, which can challenge the constitutionality of legislation in the courts, manufacturers have no such recourse in Britain. Their only hope is to persuade lawmakers to defeat the proposed ban in Parliament.

But Labour's 179-seat majority means that what Labour wants, Labour gets.

The European Union is currently considering a similar ban. And Labour's proposal may spur antitobacco groups in the US to call for tougher ad restrictions, especially in light of the current slew of liability cases the American tobacco industry now faces.

"Sports sponsorship is one of the most successful forms of advertising for major [cigarette] companies, and we are delighted that the government is at last to break the link between sport and tobacco," says Dr. William O'Neill, spokesman for the British Medical Association.

British antitobacco groups also claim that sports sponsorships by tobacco companies are particularly influential with British youths.

The proposed ban will mean the early disappearance of huge billboards advertising cigarettes in cities and near freeways, as well as of full-page ads in British newspapers. Since many sports have contracts with tobacco companies, it is expected that such contracts will be honored until they expire but will not be renewed.

Cigarette advertising on TV and radio has been forbidden in Britain since 1965. Since 1971, a series of voluntary agreements among British tobacco companies has resulted in one of the world's strictest sets of advertising rules. Cigarette ads cannot target youths, imply that cigarette smoking enhances one's appearance, or include scenic views of nature. Store-window advertising is forbidden, and a mandatory health warning covers 20 percent of each pack of cigarettes. Industrywide advertising spending is voluntarily capped as well.

In spite of this, however, cigarette smoking hasn't reduced significantly since these advertising restrictions were first established. Britain has an estimated 15 million smokers.

Withdrawal of tobacco company sponsorship will hit many sports including darts, cricket, rugby football, and auto racing, all of which have come to depend to some degree on cash sponsorship from the big tobacco companies.

In Britain, tobacco companies pay about 8 million ($13 million) a year to sporting bodies. Their efforts are directed toward high-profile events that draw large TV audiences. As a condition of sponsorship, the tobacco companies demand that brand names be attached to events.

Cricketers, for example, compete for the Benson and Hedges Cup each summer. Cricket is one of the most popular sports in Britain, and major tournaments are televised, sometimes for several hours at a time. Sponsors of such events thereby receive extremely lengthy stretches of media coverage.

The ban on tobacco promotion was further evidence of the new government's readiness to confront giant corporations that it considers are acting against the public interest.

Labour's approach was "very disturbing and unnecessary," says Paul Sadler, spokesman for the Imperial Tobacco Company. "It is very well established on a worldwide basis that a ban on advertising will have no effect at all."

During the general election campaign in March and April, the Labour Party, then in opposition, promised to ban cigarette advertising. Its decision to go further and put a halt to sports sponsorships by tobacco companies is thought to have been the result of consulting focus groups during the campaign.

Labour officials say many voters had heard about the beneficial impact of banning tobacco promotion of sports in Norway, Finland, and France. When the French government imposed a ban in 1992, it initially caused resentment among sporting bodies. But official statistics released later showed that teenage smoking had been reduced by 15 percent over three years.

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