A REPORT by the Department of Health's chief economist, Clive Smee, on the impact of tobacco advertising, suffers from 'serious defects', according to the advertising industry's trade body.
But there are growing signs that the industry is split on the introduction of a total ban on the advertising of tobacco products.
The Smee Report was considered by the Commons Select Committee on Health which last week recommended that a ban should be introduced in order to reduce cigarette consumption, particularly among the young.
A delegation from the Advertising Association told officials at the Department of Health on Friday that 'the report arrives at sweeping and unjustified conclusions based on a limited and incomplete review of the available evidence'.
But while advertising trade bodies are implacably opposed to such a ban, many leading agencies like J Walter Thompson and Bartle Bogle Hegarty are refusing to countenance tobacco accounts.
Adrian Vickers, deputy chairman of Abbot Mead Vickers, another agency which will not touch tobacco-related products, said: 'There is powerful evidence that cigarette advertising influences consumption and that a ban on advertising would reduce consumption.'
That view is disputed by John Wood, a consultant with the Lowe Group which handles Imperial Tobacco's advertising. 'A ban on advertising would not have the effect of lowering consumption. The conclusion of the select committee was a case of 'Our minds are made up, let's not bother ourselves with the facts'. '
Mr Wood said that in the mid- 1960s, when spending on adverts for tobacco products fell by more than 50 per cent after cigarette advertising was taken off television, consumption rose over eight years from 112 billion cigarettes per annum to 140 billion cigarettes. The fact that it has since fallen to 92 billion was, he argued, down to increases in duty.
The traditional line of the industry has been that while a product remains legal it must be legal to advertise it. 'It would be absurd to make the advertising industry the scapegoat for society's disapproval of smoking,' Nick Philipps, director of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said.
For those in favour of a ban, the argument is more complex than that. Adrian Vickers said that while cigarettes were sold legally to adults, advertising of tobacco products was inevitably seen by children. 'A product which is illegal for them to purchase is being advertised to them.'
The pounds 60m spent annually on cigarette advertising is minimal in relation to the amount spent on all advertising - pounds 5bn - and less than a fifth of the amount spent annually on alcohol advertising.
John Ritchie, deputy chairman of Collett Dickenson Pearce, said many agencies who made a moral decision not to take cigarette advertising did so 'because they have never been offered any'.
He said that the annual amount spent on cigarette advertising was 'incidental' next to the coverage in the media making it clear that smoking was a health hazard. 'A ban on cigarette advertising would be the thin end of the wedge. The bureaucrats in Brussels are dying to get their tiny hands around the throat of the advertising industry because bureaucrats do not like advertising,' he said.
Tobacco advertising is banned in Portugal, Italy, Norway and France. Mr Ritchie, who handles the Benson and Hedges account at CDP, predicted that a ban on tobacco advertising would be followed by restrictions on alcohol and car advertising.
The split in the industry poses some tough moral decisions.
Andrew Cracknell, creative director at Dorland, said he was opposed to a ban on the grounds of infringing freedom of speech but could not predict what he would do if asked to work on a tobacco account. 'I would not want my own children to smoke. I would be in a dilemma.'
Dominic Proctor, the chief executive of J Walter Thompson, has asked us to point out that, contrary to a report in yesterday's Independent, his advertising agency does not refuse to countenance tobacco accounts. In fact one of its most-valued clients is Gallaher, whose brands include Old Holborn and Berkeley. JWT has worked with Gallaher for 25 years and wishes this to continue. We are happy to correct this error.