Tobacco firms deserted by Tories

TOBACCO COMPANIES lost one of their most influential friends yesterday when the Tory party declared it would not overturn the Government's ban on cigarette advertising.

In one of the party's biggest policy U-turns since it lost power, it said it would keep the ban, due to come into force in December. Dr Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, also said tax hikes on cigarettes sent out the "correct health message".

The Conservatives have long had close links with the tobacco industry. The former prime minister Baroness Thatcher has acted as a consultant to Philip Morris and the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke is a deputy chairman of British American Tobacco.

But as he unveiled the results of a review of smoking policy, Dr Fox said the party was now "realistic" about the Government's ban on advertising. "I see no point, either as a doctor or a politician, in unpicking something that cannot be unpicked," he said. "We have no proposals to unpick the ban when we come back to office. It is a done deal. But my own hunch is that the Government is expecting too much from the ban and we have to take a far wider approach."

The Conservatives have repeatedly described the ban, which will give the United Kingdom the strictest rules in Europe, as "draconian".

Dr Fox's comments about the deterrent effect of increasing taxes on cigarettes also signalled a policy reverse by the Tory treasury team. Just three months ago, the shadow Treasury spokesman, John Whittingdale, provoked outrage among health campaigners when he called for a freeze on tobacco duty.

Mr Whittingdale has said that the Labour Party's constant duty increases was aggravating the UK's huge tobacco smuggling problem.

Tobacco companies are believed to have donated millions to the party over the years. Michael Ancram, the party chairman, refused yesterday to say whether it still receives funds. "We have always had a rule that we do not promise anything in return - that's the point," he said.

The Tory policy review, which consulted the tobacco industry, health experts and the advertising world, concluded that health campaigns to reduce smoking-related deaths should shift their focus from teenagers to people in their late 20s and early 30s.

It also called for better enforcement of the legal age limit for buying cigarettes and better policing by Customs to stop cheap imports and smuggling of tobacco from the Continent.

Dr Fox said it was "hypocrisy" for the EU to continue subsidising the growing of tobacco crops in Europe at a cost of pounds 8bn a year.

Clive Bates, the director of the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health, welcomed the policy review. "It is great to see them [the Tories] abandoning opposition to tobacco advertising bans. By stressing the need to crack down on criminal activity as the prime response to smuggling and refusing to call for tax freezes or reductions, they have rejected the central demand of the tobacco industry," he said.

"The tobacco companies no longer have any reliable friends left in high places. This is a good first step but there is a long way to go before the Conservatives have a fully formed and credible policy."

The Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, Simon Hughes, said: "This paper represents another U-turn by the Conservatives as they pretend to cast themselves as a caring party.

"Emphasis on education is necessary, but taxation and a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising remain the best ways to reduce the number of people who smoke."