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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Advertising under pressure
Promotional umbrellas
The UK government wants all tobacco promotion banned
by BBC News Online's Brian Wheeler

The European Court of Justice decision to block a Europe-wide ban on tobacco advertising is more than just a slap in the face for health campaigners.

European ad bans
Alcohol - All promotion banned in France. Strict curbs in Sweden and Finland.
Children - TV ads aimed at under 12s banned in Sweden. Toy advertising banned in Greece.
Special offers - banned in Germany, along with all forms of sales promotion
Pharmaceuticals - Ban on advertising prescription medicines is increasingly being ignored in some European countries
Tobacco - UK expected to push for its own ban after Europe-wide legislation falls through
It throws fresh fuel on the debate over advertising freedom, already raging across Europe.

In other words, which products can - and cannot - be legally advertised?

And should governments - or the European Union - have the power to decide?

Thin end of the wedge

A ban on tobacco advertising has been portrayed by some sections of the ad industry as the thin end of the wedge.

How much longer, they argue, before adverts for other potentially risky products, such as alcohol or fast cars, are outlawed?

The answer, if Thursday's ruling is anything to go by, is a very long time.

But that has not stopped the UK government from pledging to press ahead with its own tobacco ad ban, spurred on by the anti-smoking lobby.

Clive Bates, of Action on Smoking and Health, is upbeat about the government's chances.

"We would expect that legislation to be tighter than the European Union legislation," he said.

"The government can re-draft it from scratch, taking out all of the loopholes."

But the government's most recent attempt to bring in a ban on tobacco promotion before the rest of Europe, ended in humiliating defeat.

In May, The Lords overturned an earlier High Court injunction in the government's favour.

The decision reportedly left Health Minister Alan Milburn almost speechless with rage, and it is thought he will continue to try everything in his power to defeat the tobacco giants.

Internet advertising

But any legislation at a national level is likely to run up against a wider European Commission (EC) initiative to harmonise European advertising law.

Discussions are already under way to draw up a single set of advertising rules for the whole of Europe.

It is a question of striking a balance between all of the different member states

British advertisers' spokesman

This has been prompted, to a certain extent, by the growth of satellite television and internet advertising, which defies attempts by individual member states to effectively regulate it.

Countries with tough regulatory regimes - such as Sweden, where TV advertising to children is banned, and Germany, where discounts and sales promotions are outlawed - have argued in favour of extending this climate to the other member states.

'Country of origin'

The UK, which has one of the more liberal regimes, has lobbied in favour of the 'country of origin' principle, where ads are governed by the laws of the country they were created in.

This would effectively mean widespread liberalisation of advertising law across the EU.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), which represents big advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Ford, believes this is the only viable way forward.

It has successfully campaigned to retain the UK's system of self-regulation, through organisations like the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is funded by the advertising industry itself.

Health secretary Alan Milburn
Angry: Health Secretary Alan Milburn

Self-regualtion has also been given the cautious backing of the Labour Government.

Advertising is worth billions of pounds to the economy and the UK industry is widely seen as a world leader.

However, ISBA has recognised the need to bring the rest of Europe into the fold.

"It is a question of striking a balance between all of the different member states," a spokesman said.

"We don't want to go to one extreme or another."

Nobody is more aware of the power of advertising than Europe's politicians.

And they have not been slow to draft legislation to control it, either for moral reasons or - as critics of France's ban on alcohol promotion have claimed - to protect their own commercial interests.

The UK government, which last year rivalled the tobacco industry in the amount it spent on advertising, has made the banning of cigarette marketing a point of principle.

But Thursday's decision by the European Court, which was the result of a campaign by just two member states, Germany and Austria, is a sign that its quest could prove an impossible one.

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See also:

05 Oct 00 | Health
European tobacco ban overturned
04 Oct 00 | Scotland
Tobacco adverts action call
21 Jul 00 | Business
EU to sue tobacco giants
14 Jun 00 | Health
Europe's smoking shock tactics
22 May 00 | Health
Tobacco giants fight ad ban
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