The idea that action should be taken only by the European Union where neccessary and appropriate, a key component of the Maastricht treaty, has been used against a proposal for banning advertising everywhere except in specialised tobacco shops.
The legal advisers say that harmonisation of tobacco advertising standards, which had been regarded as a key part of the single market, is best left to national governments. The original argument had been that action was necessary precisely because national governments would otherwise adopt different positions. Changing ideology as much as fact has thus contributed to the demise of the proposal.
Three countries - the Netherlands, Germany and Britain - have been completely opposed to the idea. It has attracted more lobbying than virtually any other issue in the last few years, with the large tobacco companies putting huge efforts into fighting the ban.
Newspaper publishers, including the European Publishers' Council, had also hotly fought the idea, since cigarette manufacturers are a lucrative source of income. 'The EPC is delighted that more and more evidence and pressure is coming to bear on the European Commission to withdraw a directive which is contrary to the freedom of commercial speech,' the EPC said.
Ironically, health is one of the areas of EU activity boosted by the Maastricht treaty. Yesterday ministers also discussed a programme to fight cancer.