Leading Article: A hard choice which should not have turned into a pushover

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The Independent Online
This is not about smoking. This is about Tony Blair and how he makes decisions. The argument about whether cigarette company sponsorship of racing cars encourages people to smoke is far from clear cut. When the Government was in favour of a total ban on tobacco advertising - that is, before last week - ministers quoted the 1992 Smee report which concluded that "the balance of evidence" was that advertising has a positive effect on consumption. Well, there are plenty of other things to go into that balance, especially when one side is weighed down by the constraint on freedom of expression of an advertising ban. And young people take up smoking for a hazy cloud of reasons, from rebellion to slimming, with the effect of advertising a pea in the balance, if that. So the Government's policies, of prohibiting the 16-18 age group from smoking and banning advertising, were illiberal and misguided. It makes much more sense to focus public policy on the damage and discomfort smokers inflict on others and, as we report today, the drive against "passive smoking" is well on the way to turning smoking in public into a hole-in-corner, furtive-in- doorway activity.

It would have been best if the Government had dropped the ban on tobacco advertising altogether, although it is easy to see why that did not happen. It was in the manifesto; it has public support; there would have been an outcry far worse than the present fuss.

But now we have a bad policy made worse by inconsistency, by an exemption for Formula One racing for which a convincing case cannot be made.

Peter Mandelson, the Minister for Explaining the Higher Mysteries of New Labour, attempts to make that case on the opposite page but, in our view, he fails. The Government now holds that, although adverts on racing cars encourage smoking, the damage done to the nation's health is outweighed by the need to save jobs in the motor-racing industry.

That would be a logical, albeit difficult, argument if the threat to British jobs were real. But it is not. Mr Mandelson's arguments are taken from the lobbying brief of Formula One, the billion-pound business run by Bernie Ecclestone. This is a one-sided presentation which does not stand up to scrutiny.

Yes, a ban on tobacco advertising will hit the motor-racing industry's income. Because tobacco companies face tight restrictions on their promotional activities, they are prepared to pay more than anyone else to sponsor racing teams, perhaps between 10 and 30 per cent more. But is that enough to force the entire industry to up sticks and relocate to Malaysia?

Motor-racing grew up in the Home Counties: for years reckless eccentrics tinkered in their garages around Silverstone and Brands Hatch. Now, all the Formula One teams are based in England, except Ferrari, whose lack of success is often blamed on not sharing the support network and specialist culture of the British racing fraternity. The spectre of this local sub- economy being uprooted and replanted in the Far East is sustained by a single propagandist statistic: 70 per cent of the world audience for televised motor-racing is in the Asia-Pacific region. Well, so what? Television programmes can be made anywhere and shown anywhere: what is hard to move, even in the modern globalised economy, is local networks of human expertise and niche technology.

So what did Mr Blair say when Mr Ecclestone presented him with his special pleading? Did he say that he would govern for the whole nation and not for any vested interests within it? Did he say that bleating about jobs is the last defence of a failed argument? Did he say, "Look, it was in our manifesto, it's not perfect, but it must be applied fairly to everyone"? He did not. Did he even call for the other side of the argument to be put? It seems not. At the first puff, Mr Blair caved in. Like the underage smoker of Labour's public-health mythology, he was dazzled by the glamour, high technology and international prestige of a globally televised spectacle ("sport" is surely a misnomer).

The issue is not the job of Tessa Jowell's husband as an adviser to the Benetton racing team. She was merely put up on the radio in order to announce the Prime Minister's U-turn. Nor is the issue simply one of Labour donations. No one imagines that Mr Blair's judgment can be bought for a few thousand pounds. But what can apparently be bought for a few thousand pounds is access, and time with the Prime Minister is a valuable commodity, especially when he is as flexible as this.

So much for the attempt to emulate Thatcherite resolution. So much for "tough choices". Perhaps the only consolation is that this was a relatively trivial issue on which to make such a cowardly retreat.