Tobacco adverts ban 'would mean fewer smokers'

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A BAN on tobacco advertising in Britain would probably deter tens of thousands of children from smoking, according to government advisers.

A long-awaited review of evidence about the effect of advertising on levels of smoking has concluded that tobacco consumption could be cut by up to 7.5 per cent if a ban were introduced. Anti- smoking campaigners said the findings severely weakened the Government's long-standing argument that a blanket prohibition on cigarette promotion would have negligible effect on consumption.

The Government has been in the minority of European Community countries by opposing a ban on advertising tobacco.

Yesterday's report - by Clive Smee, chief economic adviser to the Department of Health - reviewed more than 60 studies carried out world-wide over the past 40 years, and concluded: 'The great majority of results point in the same direction - towards a positive impact. The balance of evidence thus supports the conclusion that advertising does have a positive effect on consumption.'

The impact of advertising bans has been assessed in detail in four countries - Norway, Finland, Canada and New Zealand. Although some are relatively recent bans, the evidence available indicates a significant link, the report says. It was also beyond doubt that young people recognised tobacco advertisements and that those who went on to smoke were more likely to recognise them. Surveys of reasons for children starting to smoke suggest there is some association with awareness and approval of tobacco advertising.

One in three British adults, and 28 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are regular or occasional smokers, and 100,000 people a year die of smoking-related diseases. Health ministers have put their faith in other measures such as education, pricing mechanisms and voluntary smoking bans to achieve their White Paper target, published this summer, of cutting consumption to 20 per cent of the adult population by 2000.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, underlined the Government's commitment to maintaining the real level of taxes on tobacco to help meet the targets.

Under hostile questioning from Labour MPs, Mrs Bottomley told the Commons health select committee inquiry on tobacco advertising yesterday that the Government would be besieged by demands to ban the advertising of alcohol and fast cars if it yielded to those relating to tobacco. 'To introduce a statutory advertising ban on a product which is legally for sale is a very serious step to take in a free country. It is a serious inhibition of commercial freedom.'

David Pollock, director of Action for Smoking and Health, said: 'The Government's continued refusal to ban tobacco advertising flies in the face of the evidence. The Department of Health has once more delayed a vital decision that would save thousands of lives . . .'

The British Medical Association said that even a 1 per cent reduction on tobacco consumption would prevent 1,100 deaths in the UK each year. 'In the Smee report the Government has the evidence on which to act.'

Ann NcNeil, of the Health Education Authority, said: 'The Government need not wait for a European directive but should go ahead with a ban on all forms of advertising.'