From the semi-circular table before him came the sound of choking. It emanated from Michael Fabricant, the Conservative MP for Mid-Staffordshire, who was so flushed by amazement at this statement that even his blond hair seemed to have turned a fetching shade of pink.
'There are 10 million to 12 million people in this country who have given up smoking,' Mr Birks continued. Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, was unconvinced by this argument. 'If I have to give up eating biscuits,' he said, 'I don't have to be hypnotised to do it.'
Mr Kaufman is chairman of the National Heritage Committee of the House of Commons, which on Thursday was examining the way in which the tobacco industry, though banned from advertising on television, has cigarette brand names shown there by sponsoring sport.
On the face of it, it is certainly perverse of cigarette manufacturers to choose sport for sponsorship over, say, politics, an activity that traditionally takes place in smoke- filled rooms, and where a little wheezing is no handicap to personal advancement, as the cigar-toting Kenneth Clarke has proved.
There are those, of course, who have suggested that the tobacco industry is involved in the sponsorship of politics. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, revealed in the Commons last month that at the last general election Imperial Tobacco sold 2,000 of its poster sites to the Conservative Party on the understanding that its MPs would vote against an EC ban on tobacco advertising.
If only the tobacco industry could sponsor House of Commons debates] After a tough Question Time, a prime minister would sink back on to his bench under the television lights and light up a Hamlet cigar. But it is not possible, and perhaps, even if it were, the tobacco industry would not be as interested as it is in sport. Our politicians possibly would not convey as effectively as sportsmen the image it seeks.
Toby Jessel, Conservative MP for Twickenham, asked the two representatives of the tobacco industry seated before him what their sports sponsorship was for?
'It's about promoting the awareness of the brand, and promoting brand loyalty,' said David Swan, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association.
'Forgive my interrupting,' said Mr Jessel. '. . . do you think that's achieved by linking the brand with the idea of sport, which is healthy, and famous sportsmen and women, who are hero figures?'
'This has long been denied,' said Mr Swan.
Could the sponsorship, asked Mr Jessel, influence young, immature, impressionable people?
'No, I don't think there's any link with the initiation of smoking,' said Mr Swan.
Mr Jessel moved into attack. 'According to the Royal College of Physicians,' he said 'some 4 million people have died since 1962 of diseases induced by smoking.'
'I'm fully aware of what the view of the medical establishment is,' said Mr Swan.
'. . . 110,000 a year, one death in six,' said Mr Jessel. Whereas in the whole population smoking had declined, among the young the decline was far smaller. 'In a typical constituency there are around 1,300 people aged 15,' Mr Jessel went on. 'A quarter of them smoke . . . 100 of these 15-year-olds are going, sooner or later, to die of smoking.'
But, Mr Swan pointed out, none of the tobacco companies sponsored any sport in which the participants or the majority of the audience were under 18. The tobacco industry in this country does, however, spend between pounds 8m and pounds 9m on sports sponsorship a year, and many of the sponsored events are watched on television by large numbers of young people.
In 1993, according to one survey, the BBC broadcast 211 hours of tobacco-sponsored sport, excluding motor racing. ASH, the anti-smoking pressure group, believes the television exposure cigarette companies receive is worth at least pounds 24m a year to the brands involved, though the companies deny it.
The committee turned its attention from Mr Swan to Mr Birks. His company's sports sponsorships include cricket, rugby league, snooker, golf, show-jumping and ice-hockey.
Its advertising, said Mr Birks, was aimed at recruiting existing smokers from other brands. 'One per cent in sales,' he told Mr Fabricant, of the UK market in cigarettes 'is equivalent to about pounds 100m. That is why we fight for market share.'
But how could he be so sure, asked Mr Fabricant, that sports sponsorship was not persuading non-smokers to smoke? There is no convincing evidence, said Mr Birks, that it does. Which may well be true. In one study, however, when Scottish children aged between 6 and 17 were shown adverts for Marlboro and John Player, 47 per cent associated the brands with 'people who like excitement and fast race cars'. The image of glamour does penetrate to the playground.
'We are a legal business, selling legal products,' Mr Birks said. A little while before, Mr Fabricant had suddenly changed his line of questioning. 'Do either of you two smoke?' he asked. The two representatives of the tobacco trade nodded. Michael Fabricant sat back in his chair. 'Well, I wish you a long life,' he said.
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