Banning cigarette ads in Formula One won't work

Peter Mandelson Keeping Our Promises
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The Independent Online
Bravery is a concept much loved by political commentators, who use it to categorise political decisions. An assessment of whether a decision is brave is sometimes seen as more important than whether it is right. Last week was a case in point. The decision by the Government to seek an exemption for Formula One from a ban on tobacco sponsorship in sport was seen by some to have failed the bravery test. There was a widespread comment that the Government should have had the courage to take on the tobacco companies and Formula One and ban all advertising on the cars that whizz around European tracks.

It is important to state, therefore, why our decision to exempt Formula One from the European directive banning tobacco sponsorship sprang not from cowardice, but from a hard-headed assessment of the situation. We decided to do what would actually work. Consider the facts: a ban on tobacco sponsorship in Formula One would actually have had the perverse effect of producing more cigarette advertising on our televisions. This is because Formula One would simply have shifted its races out of Europe into Asia, where no restrictions on sponsorship apply. Pictures of these races would be just as popular as now and children would have seen more cigarette advertising. Asian countries are pressing strongly to hold more races, and this would certainly suit the tobacco companies who are keen to tap into the enormous and rapidly expanding Asian market. Already 70 per cent of Formula One's television viewers are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Formula One is in a unique position. Sponsorship is far more weighted to tobacco than in any other sport - it represents about 90 per cent of the total. Sponsorship could not realistically be changed except over a long time. The threat of a move East in the face of a ban was therefore very real indeed. That is why exemptions for Formula One are commonplace in other countries. For example, Australia, which has some of the toughest anti-sponsorship and advertising laws, expressly exempts Formula One, as does Portugal and Austria. Other countries make special provision for it.

We decided therefore that we would take the best practical steps to secure our objectives. The EU directive on this will simply not work. The test is what works. We are pursuing action that will.

The UK already has a voluntary code of Formula One sponsorship. At the UK Grand Prix there are no tobacco logos or brand names on billboards. Our aim is to achieve such standards worldwide. We are seeking to end advertisements on drivers' helmets, overalls and baseball caps. We will be working with the governing body, FIA, to apply this to every race. In addition, we are seeking to get health warnings covering 30 per cent of the hoardings on the tracks. This represents the best practical way to tackle the amount of cigarette advertising on our screens.

I make no apology for saying that there was also another consideration in our decision last week. Britain is the original home of the Formula One industry. It makes 80 per cent of the cars and employs roughly 50,000 people in connected industries. To lose any significant part of the industry would be disastrous.

I believe therefore that we have taken the correct decision, in the British interests. It was not the easy way out, but it was the right one.

Our critics have used this episode as an example of a government U-turn. A media that found it easy to expose the betrayal and broken promises of the Major years have set about trying to find similar broken promises from this Government. It is important that these allegations are not allowed to stick, because they are not valid.

Take, for example, the charge that we have broken our promise on fox hunting. That is simply not true. We promised a free vote and we are delivering one. Mike Foster's Bill will have enough time to progress if it is not filibustered by its opponents, like any other Private Member's Bill. But there was never a promise to give government time.

Similarly, those who seek to portray our proposals for the funding of higher education as a breech of promise are wide of the mark. We were explicit in our support of Dearing and on the principle of graduates paying back maintenance on an income-related basis, before the election. In government, we are facing up to the tough decisions that will enable universities to get up off their knees and lift the cap on student numbers imposed by the Tories.

The charge of betrayal on Formula One, fox hunting and Dearing are therefore baseless. It is interesting that many of the people making the charges are the same ones who before the election were saying that our programme was not radical enough. Now that has been shown to be false, the attack has changed. It must be resisted. We must continue to focus on the big picture of delivering our central election promises - on crime, health, education, youth unemployment. And continue to face up to the tough decisions, even if they cannot all be popular.

The row over Formula One sponsorship has show that, after six months in government, there is a new media climate that is looking for mistakes. We should respond to this by sticking to our contract with the people, and defending ourselves robustly against charges that do not stand up. After years of broken promises under the Tories, it is easy to be cynical about politics. Our challenge is to ensure that the cynics cannot rely on the facts, and are forced to invent.