Banning tobacco advertising, as Labour has discovered, is like
putting a ferret down a rabbit warren. Before you do, be sure to plug
all the escape holes or the quarry will pop up unscathed elsewhere.
Outlawing cigarette promotion is much more complicated than it
Which is why Tony Blair’s administration has stopped short of an
immediate ban. Instead it has promised a White Paper and a draft bill
free of loopholes capable of exploitation by tobacco companies
(Campaign, last week).
On Monday, Frank Dobson, the health secretary, signalled the
Government’s uncompromising approach by promising an end to the tobacco
industry’s pounds 8 million annual sponsorship of sport in the UK.
Nevertheless, a blanket ban may prove near impossible as the new
Government finds it has blocked one route only to have unwittingly
opened another. Even Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), which has led
the charge towards a ban, concedes no country in the world has yet
managed to introduce one watertight enough to thwart such a resourceful
industry as tobacco manufacturing.
Labour’s dilemma is well illustrated in the Queen’s Speech, which
affirmed the Government’s commitment to a ban while pledging that a bill
will be introduced to incorporate the European Convention on Human
Rights into British law. Not only would such a move make it easier for
advertisers in general to challenge rulings by the Advertising Standards
Authority, but could embolden tobacco manufacturers to get an ad ban
declared illegal by a UK court.
It’s an option which appeals to cigarette company chiefs, who believe
their chances would be better in front of a judge unswayed by emotional
arguments and concerned only with whether or not a ban is an
infringement of commercial free speech.
Philip Circus, legal affairs director of the Incorporated Society of
British Advertisers, says: ’From now on it’s going to be much easier to
challenge a ban in the courts.’
The Government’s difficulties could be compounded by a meeting of EU
health ministers on 5 June when proposals for a Europe-wide ban may be
on the agenda. The discussions are a potential embarrassment for Tessa
Jowell, the public health minister, who will have to indicate some
support for the EU’s objectives. This is despite the fact that the
Government has yet to get its act together and that some of the European
proposals appear absurdly draconian. Restrictions on the use of
trademarks would mean, according to one UK agency, that a Rothmans
marketing director would even be prevented from writing to one of his
roster shops on paper bearing the company’s name and logo.
Exactly how the tobacco giants will ensure their names remain top of
mind with customers within such a hostile climate is open to
Clive Turner, the executive director of the Tobacco Manufacturers
Association, says: ’I don’t know and, if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.
Such information is commercially sensitive and, anyway, we can only
guess at the extent of any ban.’
Part of the reason for cigarette companies’ reluctance to discuss battle
plans is that a ban will probably unleash a price war as the big players
attempt to squeeze out the smaller brands. Opponents of the crackdown
claim such a war would work against an ad ban by fuelling cigarette
consumption rather than reducing it.
One possible option open to tobacco companies would be to protect
themselves by extending their brand names into other sectors,
More cigarette companies are likely to follow the path blazed by Philip
Morris, which set up Marlboro Classics as a loss leader to sidestep
advertising legislation across the world. It is now the second-largest
mail-order brand in the US.
As a result, in markets such as Indonesia, where tobacco advertising is
heavily restricted, Marlboro Classics ads proliferate. In central China,
where TV promotion of cigarettes is banned and Marlboro cigarettes are
not even available, Classics has effectively prepared the ground for the
time when the tobacco products go on sale.
The private member’s bill introduced last year by the Labour MP, Kevin
Barron, would have banned such activity. But doing so now would throw up
several anomalies. For example, would advertising for the
long-established Dunhill shops be outlawed under new legislation? And
what about the fact that Marlboro Classics is now owned by a company
unconnected with Philip Morris?
At the same time, an ad ban could become a moral dilemma for the
Government - the introduction of one could merely export the problem
overseas. Nobody doubts that a curb on tobacco companies’ activities in
mature markets such as Europe and North America will increase their
concentration on the Third World, where health warnings on cigarette
packets are rare and ad restrictions almost non-existent.
This week’s events also suggest that Dobson has won the argument with
the Department of National Heritage, which has misgivings about
stripping so much tobacco money out of sport. ASH believes the solution
could be for the Government to adopt a scheme launched by the Australian
state of Victoria in 1987. There, sports sponsorship by tobacco
companies has been replaced through raising the price of a packet of
cigarettes by about five pence and putting the money into sport and
Meanwhile, with no advertising ban likely before the summer of 1999, the
tobacco giants have to gamble. Should they accept the inevitability of
legislation in the hope of challenging it in the courts? Or should they
offer further concessions on the existing voluntary agreement in the
expectation that a future Tory government would tear it up?