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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 10:30 GMT
Cigarette ads thrive online
Bill Thompson, BBC
The ban on tobacco advertising is one of the few UK laws that takes account of the internet says technology consultant Bill Thompson.

So farewell then, tobacco advertising.

No longer will we be assailed by obscure images and surreal juxtapositions identified as ads only by the health warning at the bottom.

The Tobacco, Advertising and Promotion Act 2002, which came into force on 14 February means the end of advertising on billboards, in magazines and newspapers and on websites.

It also bans free samples, coupons and other promotions - unless you give free ciggies to someone who 'is engaged in or employed by a business which is also part of the tobacco trade'.

Online ads

Cigaretttes in ashtray
Cigarette ads consigned to ashtray in offline world

While many people have argued that banning cigarette advertising is pointless because its only effect is to persuade people who already smoke to change brand, I'm more convinced by the evidence that young people are particularly influenced by the ads, so I'm in favour of this new law.

But of course advertising hasn't really gone away. Many countries, especially in the developing world, allow the sort of adverts that were banned over here years ago, featuring a strong-jawed man made sexually irresistible by the presence of a stick of toxic plant extracts dangling from his mouth.

If I want to see these ads, or some of the more subtle promotions for smoking, I need only look online.

A quick search for any of the well-known UK brands finds sites selling them, promoting them and advertising them.

Yet none of this is illegal, because the new law prohibiting advertising is one of the few statutes I have come across that takes proper account of the global nature of the internet.

Section two of the act says that anyone who publishes a tobacco ad in the UK is 'guilty of an offence'.

It's serious - you can be jailed for up to six months for breaking this law.

However section 2(4) also says 'it is not an offence for a person who does not carry on business in the United Kingdom to publish or cause to be published a tobacco advertisement by means of a website which is accessed in the United Kingdom'.

Nazi memorabilia

The UN Convention of Human Rights applies to the online activity as much as to the right to speak freely in one's home or in a public space

Bill Thompson
Later in the Act, section eight also exempts non-UK websites from the ban on displaying cigarette prices.

Ignoring for the moment the unfortunate implication that sending a promotional e-mail or using instant messenger to advertise cigarettes would seem to be illegal because they are not 'websites', this is still a really interesting provision.

It is especially relevant in the week a French court finally ruled that the boss of Yahoo! France was not breaking the law when the company allowed French citizens to trade in Nazi memorabilia from its US website.

This was a common sense verdict that made it clear that there are limits to the reach of one country's laws over the net, but does not constrain what a government can do in its own territory.

If the French government wants to force French-registered internet service providers to install filters or controls over the sites that its citizens can visit, as China and Saudi Arabia already do, then they can do so.

They will be opposed by those, like me, who believe that the UN Convention of Human Rights applies to the online activity as much as to the right to speak freely in one's home or in a public space, but that is a political not a technical argument.

'Surprisingly sensible'

I think this is a surprisingly sensible for a government which often seems to be completely unaware of the net and how it really works

Bill Thompson
In accepting right from the start that there is a limit to how far British law can extend online, the ban on tobacco advertising gives us a good model to follow in future.

The government is recognising that there is no effective way of controlling access to websites which are located outside the country, and also recognising that there are areas where it is not reasonable to extend UK law to cover sites run by companies outside the UK, even if the content they hold breaks UK law.

They accept that people in this country will surf widely, and that some of the material they come across would not be legally publishable here.

Not only that, but they have thought about this in advance, so that there won't be any attempts to prosecute companies or people running tobacco shops online.

I think this is a surprisingly sensible for a government which often seems to be completely unaware of the net and how it really works.

Of course, it's not a blanket exemption: there are some online activities which are illegal under UK law even if they take place in another country.

It doesn't matter where you get your images of child sexual abuse from - possessing them is against the law.

It doesn't matter where the machine you hack into is located, using your PC in Bristol to launch the attack is a breach of the Computer Misuse Act.

But at least you can look at Egyptian tobacco ads without getting anyone into trouble.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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11 Feb 03 | Europe
14 Feb 03 | Health
03 Dec 02 | Business
23 Dec 00 | Americas
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