Outlook: Formula One's addiction

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The Health Secretary Frank Dobson's plan to ban all tobacco sponsorship of sporting events looks spookily like turning into Labour's equivalent of the Dangerous Dogs Act. Like all proposals dreamt up on the hoof and announced without sufficient thought, it now seems to be unravelling fast.

To many, Formula One racing looks like little more than a giant billboard for the tobacco industry. Unless you go to Grand Prix circuits to watch the crashes, it is impossible to avoid the ubiquitous advertising of the weed. It is on everything, from the race teams and their cars to the overalls and the track side hoardings. Like secondary smoking, it permeates everywhere.

Unfortunately, it has now fallen to Mr Dobson's junior minister, Tessa Jowell, to recognise that there is very little that can be done to stop this, either at a national or European level.

Ban tobacco sponsorship and it is bye-bye to Silverstone and the British Grand Prix and perhaps also the UK's pole position as home to most of the big constructors. But since motor racing is the quintessential international sport, it will simply relocate elsewhere and then continue to beam the pictures back into our living rooms from the safety of Asia or eastern Europe.

Ms Jowett proposes instead that Formula One be exempted from a proposed European Union directive banning nearly all forms of tobacco sponsorship in return for an undertaking in principle from the sport to make its tobacco advertising less visible.

It is easy to see why the sport's governing body, the FIA, is keen on the idea, since a blanket European ban could begin to hurt its image and income. It is also easy to see why the idea has smoked out the opposition in the shape of Action on Smoking and Health and possibly, the EU commissioner responsible for the directive, Padraig Flynn. Harder to see is why a UK-brokered compromise should turn the on-off flotation of F1 into a guaranteed success. Bernie Ecclestone still has much bigger fires to put out, starting with the tiresome refusal of Williams and two other leading teams to sign up to a deal for dividing up the all-important television income.