Branson tells Blair: keep your promises or lose my backing

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The Independent Online
Richard Branson issued a strongly-worded attack on the Government over the Formula One debacle yesterday and said he felt let down over the decision to exempt the organisation from the ban on tobacco sponsorship.

The Virgin tycoon said he would have to review his role as an adviser to the Government if it failed to honour its election pledge to ban tobacco advertising and end the involvement of tobacco companies in sports sponsorship.

Mr Branson, who had been advising the Government on alternative forms of sports sponsorship, said the ban must include Formula One, headed by Bernie Ecclestone who donated pounds 1m to the Labour Party before the general election. "The whole thing is very sad," he said.

Even though Mr Branson gave support to some of Margaret Thatcher's projects, he has been strongly courted by the Labour Party and has become increasingly identified with Tony Blair's drive to modernise Britain. If there were to be a parting of the ways between the two men over tobacco advertising, it would a serious embarrassment to Mr Blair.

Mr Branson said he would be contacting Mr Blair's office "to urge that they stick by their election promise ... I have always said that cigarette advertising should be banned. And I have always said that sponsorship by tobacco companies is immoral. Motor racing is a glamorous sport. Cigarette companies love to attach their wares to it."

But the cigarette sponsorship of all sport had to be stopped. If there had to be a phase-out period for Formula One then it should be "as short a time as possible," Mr Branson said. "I had hoped we could come up with ways of replacing the cigarette companies. I am willing to continue to be involved but we must know that the tobacco industry's involvement with Grand Prix will be limited."

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Branson denied he had made donations to political parties. "Not a penny. I have never given money to anybody."

BA protest, page 16

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