Branson to Blair: keep your promises or you lose my backing

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Virgin boss Richard Branson said yesterday 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 sponsoring told The Independent that the ban must include Formula One. He said he felt let down by the decision to exempt Formula One, headed by Bernie Ecclestone who donated pounds 1m to the Labour Party before the general election. "The whole thing is very sad," Mr Branson said.

Mr Branson said he would be contacting Tony 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."

Even though Mr Branson gave support to some of Margaret Thatcher's projects, he has become increasingly indentified with the Prime Minister'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: "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.

Virgin had been advising the Government on ways of finding alternative sponsoring in sport to the tobacco industry. "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."

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