PM may soften blow of tobacco ban

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Hints of a compromise over plans to ban tobacco sponsorship emerged yesterday after sports bodies put their case to the Prime Minister. Fran Abrams hears the arguments.

Sports hit by the end of tobacco sponsorship could be offered a three- pronged package of measures designed to soften the blow, it emerged last night.

Details of a possible deal emerged after Tony Blair held a 45-minute meeting with representatives of sports including snooker, darts, golf, ice-hockey and angling. They had complained that Formula One, whose chief executive Bernie Ecclestone gave pounds 1m to Labour, had preferential access to Downing Street.

An increased phasing-in period for the ban, a taskforce headed by a minister to bring in alternative sponsorship and even possible concessions over the number of sporting events which must stay on terrestrial television, were suggested by the sports' representatives.

Last night they seemed optimistic about their chances of agreeing a compromise, although ministers said the details would be thrashed out at a meeting of European Union representatives next Thursday.

Tony Banks, the sports minister, said it would take four or five years to bring in the ban. The sports would prefer seven years - a time-span hinted at last weekend by Richard Branson, the Virgin chief, who is helping to find alternative sponsorship.

Maurice Lindsay, chairman both of Rugby League and the Central Council for Physical Recreation, said the sporting bodies had had a "fair hearing" and felt satisfied that Mr Blair understood the problems they would face if tobacco sponsorship were banned. "The Prime Minister listened very carefully to our arguments ... I'm very confident that we will get a just response from the Government," he said.

A new taskforce, headed by a minister and almost certainly including Mr Branson, will bring together government, sports and industry in an attempt to find alternative forms of sponsorship.

A third possibility raised by sports yesterday is a softer position on the number of sporting events which must stay on terrestrial television.

The Government is pledged to extend the number of sports events that are safeguarded for terrestrial television and yesterday announced a taskforce, headed by Lord Strathblane, to look at the issue. Sporting bodies want assurances that events such as snooker, which will be hit by the ban, will not be further curtailed by being prevented from doing lucrative deals with satellite stations.

Mr Banks, who attended the meeting, along with the health minister Tessa Jowell, said afterwards that the Government did not want to damage sport.

Representatives of the health lobby who visited Downing Street yesterday also came away optimistic though, saying they had been convinced of the Mr Blair's commitment to a ban on tobacco sponsorship.

The director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, Professor Gordon McVie, said Mr Blair had listened carefully to their arguments but added that the Formula One exemption was "most unfortunate".

The darts world championships are to be sponsored by Carlsberg-Tetley in future instead of by Red Band cigarettes, it was announced last night. The three-year contract is believed to be worth pounds 250,000.