LIVE ISSUE/TOBACCO ADVERTISING: Tobacco giants expose flaws in Labour’s strategy - The proposed ad ban may cause as many problems as it solves

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.

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,

particularly leisurewear.

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

medical research.

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?