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EU: Tobacco Ban Puts Union, Formula 1 Racing On Collision Course

Formula 1 car racing may be a sport of high-speed thrills, spills, and glamour. But behind the razzmatazz lie rock-hard business calculations. Big corporations spend millions of dollars to have their names on the cars or around the course -- none more so than the big cigarette manufacturers. But an upcoming European Union ban on tobacco advertising has sent the whole sport into a spin.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the pine-clad Belgian hills lies one of the great car racing circuits of the world, Spa-Francorchamps. For more than 80 years, race cars have thundered around its curves, dipped into its hollows, roared over its crests, and streaked for the finish line.

This year, it is silent. The famed Belgian Grand Prix, one of the annual Formula 1 (F1) championship races, has vanished, as it were, in a puff of smoke. The body controlling the F1 circus, the Federation Internationale d'Automobile (FIA), has assigned the race instead to China. The Belgian government has banned the display of tobacco advertisements on the cars and the course.

Tobacco corporations are the biggest sponsors of grand prix motor racing, and the FIA was not willing to bow to Belgium's demands. Losing the race has had an immediate economic impact on Spa, one of Belgium's foremost vacation areas.

As local government official Jean-Jacques Bloemers says, "It is very difficult for the region to have lost the F1 grand prix. It's very important for our region, which counts on millions of euros for hoteliers and all the businesses of the region [from the grand prix race]."

The Belgian ban comes ahead of a similar ban due to come into effect for the entire European Union, including the new East European members, in 2005. Theoretically at least, that means the same fate could befall some or all of the other F1 races on the world championship calendar as the FIA could seek to move them out of Europe to Asia, or to countries like Russia where cigarette advertising is allowed.

Mark Bursa, a British-based motor-industry analyst, says "There certainly has been talk of a Russian grand prix as one of the potential new races, because obviously, as you well know, Russia is a very big consumer of tobacco products."

Tobacco advertising provides the racing teams with tens of millions of euros in sponsorship. For instance, Ferrari's sponsorship from Marlboro is reportedly worth 80 million euros alone. The European Commission, concerned at the implications of this massive advertising -- particularly for the health of young people -- first moved in 1998 to ban it by 2006. As commission spokesman Thorsten Muench says, "It's an attractive sport to a lot of young people, and we [at the commission] do not believe the tobacco companies would spend so much money on advertising if they did not think this would get the attention of a lot of young people who they want to get smoking." The FIA originally accepted the 2006 schedule for an end to cigarette ads and even began pushing for a global ban so that they would not have to consider moving the races out of Europe, their traditional home.

But then one of the EU member states rejected the ban on technical grounds, forcing the commission to eventually set the final implementation date as 2005, instead of 2006.

The change has prompted the FIA to go to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to argue that teams will still be contractually bound to the tobacco companies when the new, earlier ban goes into effect. As the FIA's lawyer in Brussels, Stephan Kinsela, says, the difference between the two implementation dates -- 15 months -- is so small in terms of EU time scales that it could not matter to Brussels.

But for the FIA, this means that if contractual obligations are to be fulfilled then it must move the races outside the union. In addition, the aims of the commission would be defeated because television coverage of those races would be beaming the ads back to Europeans.

Muench points out that when the new version of the ban was put forward with the 2005 date, no EU member, nor any deputy of the European Parliament, objected to it.

It seems that EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection David Byrne -- a strong antismoking campaigner who unilaterally changed the date to 2005 -- has inadvertently wreaked havoc in one of the world's major sports.