UK government fails its first test on public health

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7119.1325 (Published 22 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1325

The government should reaffirm its commitment to a total ban on tobacco sponsorship

  1. Tony Delamothe (delamothe{at}bmj.com), Deputy editora
  1. a BMJ

    As we went to press Tessa Jowell, Britain's minister for public health, was preparing to appear before the Commons European legislation select committee. Her difficult brief was to explain why the government had reneged on its promise to ban tobacco advertising by exempting Formula One motor racing.1 Given that such an exemption jeopardises the best chance yet of getting European health ministers to agree to ban tobacco advertising throughout the European Union, she may find the going tough.

    The government's only honourable exit from this debacle is to admit that it goofed (as the prime minister has begun to do—though so far only over presentational matters) and attend next month's meeting of European health ministers determined to support a total ban on tobacco advertising. If Ms Jowell continues to support the unsupportable line that she has advanced both in parliament2 and in print3 then she has no place as a minister for public health. If, as her friends maintain, she has only been following her government's orders, then the government would do better to close her ministry than to bring it into such disrepute. For Britain to lose its minister for public health so soon would be a tragedy, but what's the point of a minister who says all the right things but is over-ruled when the going gets tough? We want a minister for public health who can really advance the health of the public, which is often politically difficult.

    The success of any such ministry is bound to be judged by its actions on smoking—Britain's main public health problem, now rising after 25 years' steady decline.4 Tobacco companies need to replace the 120 000 smokers who die of their habit each year. As smoking habits are relatively fixed by the late teenage years, the tobacco industry must hook potential smokers before this, and the industry has found sponsoring sport is an effective way of reaching this vulnerable population. Several studies have shown that the young are influenced by tobacco sponsorship of sporting events,5 6 and last week's Lancet reported a particularly relevant one showing that boys in their early teenage years who watched motor racing on television were nearly twice as likely to become smokers as those who did not.7

    The government's main justification for exempting Formula One has been that British jobs would be lost as the ban would force motor racing overseas. However, commentators qualified to assess these claims have judged them “threadbare.”8 9 The risk of overseas migration of Formula One racing has also featured in public health justifications for the exemption, best summarised in Ms Jowell's statement to the House of Commons that “exempting Formula One is to ensure that there is less tobacco advertising not more.”2 The reasoning behind this is that in exchange for an exemption from the ban Formula One organisers would agree voluntary controls on tobacco promotion; without such an exemption, Formula One might decamp to countries that lack controls on advertsing. Televised events might therefore be beamed back to Europe containing even more advertising than now. But this rests on several questionable assumptions—for example, that the tobacco industry sticks to voluntary agreements and that countries have no ways to influence what their populations see on television. In any case, even if the exemption is granted now, nothing can keep Formula One racing in Britain if its organisers want to take it elsewhere in future.

    Nobody believes the government's stated reasons for its proposed exemption—because they don't withstand serious scrutiny. In this climate of disbelief, the darker motives alleged for its actions—that it made the decision because senior figures in Formula One racing donated substantial sums to the Labour party—become more credible. And with these allegations, regardless of their truth, comes a fall in the government's standing. Louder and more insistent claims of doing nothing improper are falling on deaf ears. To redeem itself, this government needs to reaffirm its commitment to a total ban on tobacco advertising in time for next month's meeting of health ministers.


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