Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin, said it was time to take on the tobacco barons and call the bluff of those who threatened an end to Formula One motor racing in the United Kingdom if tobacco money were withdrawn.
Mr Branson, appearing on a platform with Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health, at a government-organised anti-smoking summit, said Virgin would sponsor Indy motor racing in Britain as a substitute for the Grand Prix, if that were moved to another country.
Indy motor racing, which originated in the United States, involves racing round a banked oval track and is cheaper to put on than Formula One. Mr Branson added that Virgin companies would also be happy to step in with offers of sponsorship for other threatened sports such as cricket and snooker.
"I am absolutely convinced it is a bluff and the chances of it happening are small, but it is important the tobacco companies can't frighten the public into thinking they will lose their favourite sports," he said.
Mr Branson's remarks caught the mood of the meeting, attended by five ministers from three government departments and bolstered by assorted celebrities, who had come to hear anti-smoking experts from around the world before framing new proposals for legislation.
As a succession of speakers warmly congratulated the Government on its initiative, Ms Jowell declared: "I believe that when the histories of public health are written, what we start today will be recognised as the turning point in smoking in this country. From today, smoking starts to be history."
Ms Jowell said the aim was "fundamentally to change the position of tobacco in the public consciousness". Tobacco advertising and sponsorship will be banned and the duty on tobacco will rise by 5 per cent in real terms annually (compared with 3 per cent under the previous government).
A White Paper to be published by the end of the year will also set out ministers' thinking on raising the minimum age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18, and introducing new restrictions on smoking in public places. New measures to help people give up smoking, and prevent them taking it up will also be included.
Mr Branson, who is a trustee of the pressure group, Parents against Tobacco, called for a 3p a packet surcharge on cigarettes to provide a pounds 120m anti-smoking fund to persuade the public of the health dangers.
Padraig Flynn, the European commissioner for employment and social affairs, said concerted action across Europe was essential to combat the power of the tobacco companies. Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the British Medical Association, urged all those opposed to the tobacco industry to "join forces in a combined crusade against the corporate criminals".
The only group not represented at the meeting, the tobacco manufacturers, responded sourly to Mr Branson's offer. A spokesman said: "He is putting his foot in a world about which he knows nothing. Indy racing ... has nothing like the glamour of Formula One."
Motor racing drew 40 per cent of its sponsorship income from the tobacco industry, compared with 3 per cent for other sports, and there was a serious danger that the organisers of the British Grand Prix would take the event elsewhere if this source of funds were cut off. "With a potential worldwide TV audience of 900 million it doesn't matter if they are tearing round corners at Silverstone or in Taipei," he said.
t Pregnant women who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day risk having unruly, anti-social sons who may grow into criminals, researchers said. The claim arises from a study of the records of 177 boys aged seven to 12 who were referred for treatment for behaviour problems.Reuse content