Blow for tobacco industry over ad ruling

The tobacco industry yesterday suffered a court defeat over new restrictions on cigarette advertising in shops, pubs and clubs, after a judge threw out its claim that the rules were unlawful and a breach of their human rights.

Mr Justice McCombe, a High Court judge, told the group of tobacco companies, which includes British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, Gallaher and Philip Morris, that the Government's new rules restricting advertising at point-of-sale were fair and justified.

The group had claimed the rules, which insist that advertisements in shops and on vending machines are no bigger than the size of an A5 sheet of paper, (of which 30 per cent must be a health warning), were a breach of their right to "freedom of expression" under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lawyers argued that the restrictions, due to begin next month, prevent companies from making meaningful or effective communication with adult smokers and do not allow smokers to receive a reasonable level of information about legally available products before they buy.

They also claimed that the Government had not assessed carefully enough whether less severe regulations would be as effective. The companies told the court that as a result of the rules, they could not introduce new products.

But the judge dismissed their arguments, saying the restrictions were "directed at an acknowledged serious risk to health and the need for public protection against that risk". "Given the health risks and economic costs to society caused by smoking and a substantial weight of expert opinion as to the effects of advertising, I believe it to have been a proportionate step," he said.

The judge gave the companies leave to appeal, however. A spokesman for Imperial Tobacco said the industry had not yet decided whether to challenge the ruling. "We are obviously disappointed. It is our view that the laws are disproportionate and restrict our commercial freedom to communicate with our customers," he said.

Anti-smoking campaigners said a tobacco industry challenge would only waste more public funds. "The tobacco industry has a track record of issuing challenges on questionable grounds which waste huge amounts of time and taxpayers' money in defending them," said Deborah Arnott, a director of Ash.

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