Minister rejects ban on tobacco advertising: Government hopes to introduce 'firmer controls' through voluntary agreement

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THE GOVERNMENT yesterday rejected calls for a ban on tobacco advertising, offering instead merely renewed talks with the industry on a further voluntary advertising agreement.

With MPs expected to give a Second Reading to Kevin Barron's Private Member's Bill banning tobacco advertising on Friday, Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister for Health, had nothing to offer other than the promise of talks to deliver 'the firmer controls needed in some areas' and the announcement of a new scientific advisory committee on smoking.

Despite a vigorous defence of the Government's position - and a refusal to discuss the leaked support for a ban from at least three Cabinet ministers, including Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade - embarrassment over the stance was shown when Dr Mawhinney said that he was likely to abstain on the Labour MP's Bill on Friday after presenting the Government's case for opposing a ban.

Ministers hope to use the Second Reading vote in favour of a ban to apply pressure on the industry in the talks about to start. Leaked Cabinet papers show that ministers propose a ban on poster and shopfront advertising, tougher restrictions on advertising in women's magazines and a possible levy - which the Advertising Association has said it will bitterly oppose.

Launching the 'action plan' to cut smoking, Dr Mawhinney said the Government found 'little to support the argument that a statutory ban would have a dramatic effect on further reducing smoking, especially in comparison with the impact of other measures such as price or parental influence.'

He added: 'The very real issue is whether it is appropriate to legally ban the advertising of a substance which it is perfectly legal for people to use and enjoy.' Asked why the Government could not introduce a total ban, if it had already halted TV commericals, he said: 'Governments of both persuasions have recognised that TV is a particularly powerful and influential medium.'

With smoking among 11- to 15- year-olds failing to fall, yesterday's plan emphasises parental disapproval, action by teachers and school governors, and the need for retailers to enforce the law banning sales to those under 16. Those measures are linked to the real-terms price increase in cigarettes that the Government has promised and a pounds 12m three-year anti-smoking campaign already announced.

The Advertising Association greeted Dr Mawhinney's statement as 'a victory for common sense', while Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) said it was 'vacuous'.

A spokesman for Ash said: 'The Government seems to want action by everyone but themselves: parents, teachers, governors, shopkeepers, employers, doctors - but not health ministers.' A report by the Department of Health's chief economic adviser showed a ban would save at least 4,400 lives a year, and Ash believes 'nothing short of a total ban is now acceptable'.

The British Medical Association said that what was needed was 'a clear, unequivocal message about the dangers of smoking which only a complete ban on tobacco advertising can bring'. Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of its council, said: 'I am sure that MPs will see through this ploy and continue wholeheartedly to support Kevin Barron's Bill.'

Dr Mawhinney said he believed that 'firmer controls' were needed, particularly over the exposure of children to tobacco advertising but that parents should also realise the strength of their influence on children's smoking habits. 'Where children perceive strong parental disapproval of their smoking they are seven times less likely to smoke,' he said.

Labour's health spokeswoman, Dawn Primarolo, condemned the Government's 'two-faced and wasteful' proposals. 'Dr Mawhinney is relying on parents to set an example to the young, but it is the Government who should set a clear example and put the health of the nation before the financial considerations of the Conservative Party,' she said.