Britain was offered eight years to wean Formula One and other sporting or arts events off tobacco sponsorship last night to secure the Government's backing for a controversial EU ban on cigarette advertising.
Under pressure from European health ministers the Commission, which has been seeking a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship for the past 10 years, appeared ready to bow to a series of other national demands to muster a majority in favour of the measure.
A surprise move by Spain, which switched camps to reverse its support for a ban early yesterday, plunged supporters into despondency as backing for a compromise formula had been finely balanced, with four member-states, Germany, Austria Greece and Denmark, ranged against it.
A second compromise offering Britain an eight-year phase-in for a sponsorship ban on events "organised at world level" and giving Greece the right to display tobacco ads at street-corner kiosks, looked enough to clinch a deal, even without Spain's approval.
But the threat of a total ban on indirect advertising, sponsorship and promotional gifts fell away as the Commission eased proposals which would have banned the marketing of clothing and luxury goods by tobacco manufacturers.
Faced with a hail of protests about legal obstacles related to trademark law, it revised the threat, to allow existing products such as Camel boots or Marlboro T-shirts to continue to be sold subject to certain constraints. Under the deal expected to be agreed late last night, assuming Britain accepted the eight-year timeframe for Formula One sponsorship, EU governments, all of which already ban tobacco advertising on television, would ban publicity in the written press and on billboards.
They would have two years to implement the measure.
Sponsorship deals could continue for all sports for a further two years and a further four-year exemption could be allowed for sporting or cultural events "organised at world level".
Organisers would be required to demonstrate that they were replacing tobacco money with alternative sponsors during that time and to reduce the visibility of cigarette brand emblems and logos at events.
Cigarette advertising in specialist tobacco industry magazines and in publications imported from outside the EU, for example copies of Time or Newsweek published in the US, could also continue.
Padraig Flynn the EU commissioner for health policy, strongly urged governments to accept the compromise warning, that it would be many years before a new attempt to restrict advertising could be launched if it failed.
There was criticism however from governments which said the watered- down version of the proposals inflicted serious damage on effectiveness of a ban. Brian Cowen, the Irish health minister, said: "I am disappointed at efforts to water this down.
Quite clearly, vested interests in the tobacco industry and in sport are very strongly influencing the proceedings".