Tory MPs back ban on tobacco advertising

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VIRGINIA Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, is becoming increasingly isolated in her opposition to a tobacco advertising ban, as a Tory-led committee of MPs voted to support a 'total elimination of tobacco advertising other than at point of sale'.

Department of Health officials believe that Britain will be forced by the rest of the EC to impose a ban as opposition in other states crumbles. The Commons Select Committee on Health, in a majority decision, has decided to recommend that the Government supports the proposed EC directive which would impose a ban.

In the Council of Ministers, 54 votes are needed for the directive to be passed and currently 43 votes can be relied upon. Britain holds 10 votes. Germany and the Netherlands are the only other states against a ban.

In its report, The European Commission's Proposed Directive on the Advertising of Tobacco Products, published yesterday, the select committee said: 'The Government cannot continue to procrastinate on the issue of an advertising ban on the grounds that it is awaiting a level of proof about its effectiveness, which is, in the nature of things, unobtainable.'

Those who oppose a ban, including Mrs Bottomley, favour voluntary curbs agreed by the industry. There are also concerns that such a ban abuses commercial freedom and would set a precedent. But the report says: 'If ministers wish to nail their colours to the mast of 'free expression' they should do so explicitly and not dally over health issues.'

Marion Roe, chairman of the committee and Conservative MP for Broxbourne, said she did not see why the report and its conclusion 'should embarrass the Government or anyone else'. She had proposed that the tobacco industry 'be persuaded to agree to a voluntary but total ban'. However, the committee divided five to three in favour of the proposal by Roger Sims, Tory MP for Chislehurst, to support the directive.

Mrs Roe said yesterday said that, while the report was not unanimous, the committee agreed on 57 of the 61 paragraphs. Three Tories, Michael Trend, David Congdon and James Clappison, who said they favoured reductions in smoking, did not support the EC-wide ban.

Mrs Bottomley, who has set targets for reductions in smoking, outlined in the White Paper, Health of the Nation, said yesterday that she would consider the report. The major factors which had a clear effect on smoking were price, peer-group pressure and 'especially important for teenagers, the example of parents', she added.

David Pollock, director of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said: 'Every one of the Government's arguments has been demolished by the committee. The Health Secretary must now meet the committee's challenge: either to support a ban or come out and say that she puts freedom of speech for tobacco advertisers ahead of the health of our children.'

A statement from the Tobacco Advisory Council, which represents the industry, said that the report 'leans too heavily on data which are seriously flawed, muddled and unsubstantiated'.