A total ban on tobacco advertising was a key pledge in Labour's general election manifesto. Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, later said that sponsorship would also be banned.
However, under plans drawn up by the Department of Health, snooker will be placed on the same footing as Formula One motor racing, which has been granted an extra three years to phase out cigarette sponsorship.
The move will infuriate the influential health education lobby. Ministers, whose long-awaited guidelines on cigarette advertising will be published this week, can also count on the indignation of those sports which have been refused such exemption.
Labour faced accusations of sleaze when it tried to exempt Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's chief executive, from the Europe-wide ban on tobacco advertising. It later emerged that he had given pounds 1m to the party. Sir Patrick Neill, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, ordered Labour to return the money.
Ministers now want to reprieve snooker on the grounds that it is a "world event" and is heavily reliant on tobacco sponsorship. But the surprise decision is at odds with Labour's tough public stance, which reflects the prevailing attitude among European governments.
Whitehall sources have confirmed that the Government plans to put snooker in the same category as Formula One because of its reliance on tobacco sponsorship for staging big events.
"As well as Formula One, only one other sport will qualify and that is world snooker," the source said.
Representatives of snooker's governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, met Tony Blair at Downing Street in November 1997 to put their case for the same three-year breathing space as Formula One.
They accused the Prime Minister of favouritism towards Mr Ecclestone, who, they argued, was less reliant on tobacco sponsorship. "We really have no argument about the Government taking tobacco out of sport. I can see the good sense of that," said Jim McKenzie, former chief executive of the WPBSA, who led the delegation at the meeting. "But the issue was that Bernie Ecclestone was getting preferential treatment. Tony Blair got very aggressive when we accused him of that."
The Government plans to extend snooker's exemption, as with Formula One, to 2006. Other sports, such as rugby and darts, will have to phase out cigarette billboards and sponsorship by 2003.
Ministers are acutely sensitive to the accusation of favouritism towards Formula One. The Government is said to have been swayed by snooker's argument that key tournaments, such as the Embassy World Championship in Sheffield, which receives pounds 1.4m from Imperial Tobacco, would be jeopardised by an immediate ban.
Snooker claims that as much as 70 per cent of its revenue is generated by events sponsored by tobacco brands.
The Government's move will infuriate doctors and cancer charities, who claim that tobacco promotion leads to thousands of deaths. It is also expected to be criticised by many MPs.
The WPBSA receives millions of pounds for TV rights from the BBC, ITV, and Sky. Its current president is Lord Archer, who hopes to contest the election for mayor of London in 2000.Reuse content