Letter: Branson and F1

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Sir: Since your headline "Branson tells Blair: keep your promises or lose my backing" (13 November) used words I never said, and since you've published letters as a result, I'd like the chance to set out my thoughts on the cigarette sponsorship debate.

Some ten years ago I was sitting with a bunch of kids on a Virgin Atlantic plane watching on television what I thought was a glamorous motor race. It dawned on me that it was in fact a clever advertorial for a cigarette company, aimed at young people. I pledged from that day to ban all cigarette advertising from all Virgin companies. Our accountants believe that decision costs us around pounds 1m a year.

It is encouraging young people to start to smoke that most of us are against, not preaching to adults who already smoke. If adults are foolish enough to risk killing themselves by smoking (or ballooning!) that's up to them. So we continue to sell duty-free cigarettes, to have smoking carriages on our trains and smoking areas on a couple of our flights where the majority of our customers want them. I don't believe the two to be contradictory.

Three months ago I was asked to attend a medical conference where a categorical pledge was given by ministers to ban all sponsorship of sport by tobacco companies within approximately three years. The Government then asked me if I could find alternative sponsors to replace cigarette companies who sponsored sports. I said I would be delighted to do so.

The week before last I was phoned in the States by an embarrassed minister to be told that Formula One would be excluded. They could carry on accepting tobacco sponsorship indefinitely. Would I continue, in the circumstances, to help them find sponsorship for the other sports?

I pointed out that I felt bitterly disappointed, as I was sure the rest of the country would; that to treat a rich sport paying drivers pounds 5m a year differently from poorer sports such as cricket, fishing or snooker just didn't stack up. I pointed out that there would be no job losses - I knew most of the teams well and they were committed to England, tobacco or not. The Government was breaking its election pledges, and letting millions of young non-smokers down.

I reminded the minister that although I was convinced that the Grand Prix organisers were bluffing in threatening to withdraw from Europe, I had already pledged to the Government that if they did, Virgin would set up a rival sport - or bring the even more exciting Indy racing to Europe.

However, I also said I would of course continue to work with ministers in finding new sponsors for the other sports and would lobby Tony Blair on my return to cap the number of years Grand Prix continues to take cigarette sponsorship.

I never said I would withdraw my support for the project. I hope it is not in my character to walk away from a challenge.