Exemption on tobacco cash provokes fury

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT faced a barrage of criticism from health campaigners yesterday over the news that snooker has been exempted from its ban on tobacco sponsorship.

Labour MPs, cancer charities and anti-smoking groups attacked the decision by the Department of Health to give snooker an extra three years to find alternative sponsors.

The controversy erupted after The Independent on Sunday revealed the proposals to grant the sport an exemption similar to that given to Formula One motor racing.

Tony Blair endured one of his worst periods as Prime Minister when it emerged that Formula One had been exempted from the Europe-wide ban, which comes into force in 2003.

Labour was forced to return a pounds 1m donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's chief executive, on the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

It now appears that ministers want to grant a reprieve to snooker on the basis that it is a "world event" relying heavily on tobacco firms for a large slice of its income. Under proposals being drawn up by the Department of Health, snooker will be given an extra three years, effectively until 2006, to find alternative sponsorship.

Ministers were understood to have been persuaded of the need for the exemption after it was claimed that big tournaments, such as the Embassy World Championship would be placed in jeopardy by a ban.

The revelation is embarrassing for the Government as it is set to publish this week its long-awaited guidelines on cigarette advertising.

The department would not confirm snooker's exemption, but a spokeswoman said the Government was committed to ending tobacco advertising. "The EU agreed that sports operating on a global scale would have an extra three years to introduce the tobacco advertising ban so their sports would not be jeopardised," she said.

Snooker's governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, has been lobbying ministers over the issue since 1997, claiming that Mr Ecclestone was receiving "preferential" treatment.

The move has been condemned by anti-smoking campaigners, including the Labour chairman of the Commons Health Committee, David Hinchliffe. "My committee was concerned when the exemption was given to Formula One because we felt that it would lead other sports to make similar claims and quite clearly this is what has happened," he said.

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