What was the biggest surprise in adland last week? That Lowe and
Ammirati Puris Lintas are to merge? After months of rumours and leaks,
no surprise there. That at least one APL figure (Vince Lubrano, the
money man) has secured himself a place with the Lowe contingent on the
new Lowe Lintas board? No surprise there, either; like all mergers, this
one’s really a takeover in disguise. Or was it the High Court ruling
last Friday that the timing of the planned tobacco advertising ban in
the UK - due to begin on 10 December, well before an European Union
deadline of July 2001 - was illegal? Of course it was.
As we all know, the tobacco advertising issue is rarely reported with
anything approaching neutrality. The heroes and villains are already
clearly demarcated in this story, so let’s recap.
The bosses of the tobacco companies are a faceless, sadistic,
self-serving crew, clearly reconciled to abandoning their profits in
mature tobacco markets where breathing other people’s smoke is morally
equivalent to being sprayed with machine-gun fire, because they see fat
profits in Asia and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, they are determined to
undermine the UK ad ban which, if allowed to go ahead, will make the UK
a healthier nation.
The foil to this image of corporate cynicism is the caring government
(let’s not mention the fact that the UK has one of the worst cancer
survival rates in Europe, it so messes up the argument). Having sold its
anti-smoking crusade as a manifesto commitment, it’s been stymied by the
tobacco companies winning this latest legal battle. Witness the
hysterical reaction from Alan Milburn, the health secretary.
Meanwhile, following the reprieve, agencies with tobacco accounts are
rubbing their hands with glee. They know that the Government will appeal
against the lifting of the ban, but they also know that the appeal is
unlikely to be heard in time to meet the 10 December deadline. They know
that a fast-track route to a ban would be a Private Member’s bill in
Parliament, but there is no guarantee that it would attract government
support. So they are putting their farewell campaigns back in the drawer
and happily predicting increased revenues for next year.
Between these moral and economic arguments, there is an interesting
legal precedent unfolding. The UK is the first EU government to seek to
implement the tobacco ad ban. It looked like it had succeeded and now
the tables have been turned, albeit temporarily. Now the UK may be
forced to turn to the EU timetable of events, which does not oblige us
to introduce a ban under the directive until 2001. The other EU member
states will be looking on with great interest.
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