Tobacco sponsorship of Formula One must stop, say health experts


As the British Grand Prix gets underway this weekend, a team of international public health experts is calling for a comprehensive ban on sports sponsorship by transnational tobacco companies (TTCs), and the closing of the loopholes which enable the continuing use of Formula One as a means of peddling the tobacco pandemic.

Writing in today's British Medical Journal1, Jeff Collin of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, USA are pushing for widespread implementation of the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and the development of a more powerful protocol to prevent TTCs from taking advantage of the laxity of Formula One.

Tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world. It is currently responsible for the deaths of one in ten adults worldwide (about 5 million deaths each year). If current smoking patterns continue, it will cause 10 million deaths each year by 2025. Half the people that smoke today - that is about 650 million people - will eventually be killed by tobacco2, and most of those deaths will be in the developing world.

Regulation has curtailed more direct forms of tobacco advertising, making sport sponsorship central to the marketing operations of TTCs, and tobacco sponsorship of motor sports remains an efficient way to reach boys and adolescent males. Races are increasingly being held in key emerging markets throughout Asia with either minimal regulation or negotiated exemptions.

In an unprecedented step, British American Tobacco (BAT) even established its own Formula One racing team, British American Racing, in 1999. This was a new development in the relationship between motor sports and TTCs in that the team was named after the sponsor, rather than the car manufacturer in contrast to, say, the Ferrari team which also has tobacco company sponsorship.

The paper's release coincides with this weekend's British Grand Prix which is expected to attract 560 million viewers. With a TV audience of 7 billion across 206 countries3, Grand Prix Motor Racing is the biggest annual sport series in the world. Any organisation which is able to associate itself with this event will find its corporate image and its ability to boost sales of its product enhanced.

'Critically, Formula One is a sport that appears comparatively content to be reliant on funding by tobacco companies and to be used to advance their global interests', comments Jeff Collin. 'The very structure of the sport is changing so as to more effectively promote the interests of its sponsors, shifting races from heavily regulated European markets towards important emergent markets, particularly in Asia.

'Several countries have granted advertising exemptions to Formula One. Others have effectively offered compensation for lost advertising opportunities in order to prevent the loss of coveted national races. These unfortunate practices reduce the financial incentives for teams to find alternative sponsors, exacerbated by the FIA's recent abandonment of its earlier commitment to become tobacco-free in 2006. This is arguably detrimental to the future of the sport, but is certainly damaging to global health. Drivers like Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button look set to continue in their role as the world's leading cigarette salesmen'.

The paper's authors studied internal BAT documents housed within the tobacco industry depositories in Guildford and Minnesota which reveal that BAT considered a merchandising deal with toy giant Hasbro and a computer game based on its leading driver. Participation in Formula One was also seen as politically advantageous, with its role as race host allowing opportunities for "tickling the soft underbelly of the decision makers"4.

'Widespread implementation of the Framework Convention, with comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising and promotion, to include sports sponsorship could dramatically reduce the importance of Formula One to the tobacco industry, and prevent cigarette manufacturers from using the global appeal of the sport to market their brands and spread the tobacco pandemic', he concludes.

For further information, or to interview Jeff Collin, please contact the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's Press Office on 020 7927 2073.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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