campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 23 July 2004 12:00AM
For 14 years, France's Loi Evin banning alcohol promotion has been the equivalent of a two-fingered gesture against freedom of commercial speech.
Now it looks like it's here to stay after the court ruled that France can continue to ban TV channels from broadcasting shots of billboards advertising alcohol at sporting events.
The European Commission dithered over whether to take France to court over the Loi Evin as politics was allowed to prevail over legal considerations. Alas, having summoned up the courage to try to blow a legal hole in the Loi Evin large enough to sink it, the Commission has failed. As a result, one of France's most hypocritical pieces of legislation now looks to be a permanent fixture. And the implications for drinks advertisers and sports rights holders are profound.
The Loi Evin is protection thinly disguised as a public health aid. Introduced primarily to safeguard France's beer and wine manufacturers, its success at reducing excessive alcohol consumption is, at best, unproven. In fact, there's evidence to suggest teenage drunkenness is worryingly high and fuelled by sales of unadvertised, cheap, high-strength supermarket own-label beers.
Indeed, the French parliament gave credence to the cynics in May when it agreed to relax advertising rules for the country's winemakers, worried about competition from Australia, the US and Chile.
Against that background, the court's ruling looks like an over-reaction.
Is the sight of some perimeter ads at a football match really going to make thousands of viewers hit the bottle? And surely such restrictions are way over the top and don't justify the disruption to activities such as the collective selling of sponsorship for Europe-wide sports competitions, particularly football, when French clubs are taking part.
The effect of the judgment ensures that a law whose raison d'etre is highly questionable is virtually impregnable because no organisation will now spend time or money trying to challenge it. Equally seriously, it will embolden pressure groups who will see it as justification for pushing through their aim of getting alcohol ads barred from TV, the press and poster sites across the EU.
One industry lobbyist described the court's decision as "unhelpful".
That's putting it mildly.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk