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Formula 1 (F1) racing cars fly by so fast it requires slow motion replay to judge what’s really happened. In the whir and blur of real time action, the Canadian F1 Grand Prix race in Montreal in June appeared to show tobacco control gaining a lap on the smoke industry. On closer examination, however, the image is actually fuzzier, the result less obvious. Michael Schumacher won in Montreal, as almost everywhere else on the F1 circuit, but whose interests are really coming out ahead?
Canada’s Tobacco Act, adopted in 1997, was supposed to put an end to industry sponsorship of sporting and cultural events. Major tennis and golf tournaments, as well as a raft of music, comedy, and fireworks festivals, all managed to free themselves from the grasp of nicotine stained dollars. However, some ash-laden lobbying earned Big Tobacco no less than a seven year reprieve for a “transition period”. Running his own small but plutocratic fiefdom, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone threatened to cancel the 2004 Canadian event if further exemptions were not accorded. The cartoon on this page highlights one healthy response to the industry’s manipulation and Ecclestone’s strong arm tactics.
After a lengthy, confusing game played out, with the race tentatively cancelled, revived and cancelled again, the Canadian and Quebec government finally conceded Cdn$12 million (US$8.8 million) over three years to “compensate” the five tobacco sponsored teams for having to cover up their logos.
Politicians spun their defeat into a victory, taking credit for having saved a prestigious international event. Tobacco control advocates from around the world congratulated their Canadian colleagues for ensuring that a tobacco ad-free event was beamed into their countries. Certainly, compared to the Malaysian debacle earlier this year (Malaysia: racing round the hurdles, Tobacco Control 2004;13:106–7), the tobacco presence seemed relatively modest yet, up close, it was far more significant, even if at times more subtle.
Massive, pre-race French and English language press coverage included file photos from earlier Grand Prixs in Montreal and elsewhere showing “Schumi” and his Marlboro colours and logos as dominant in print as they are on the racetrack. Even without the logos in race and victory podium photos, the Marlboro colours are as evocative as ever. There’s a reason why Philip Morris intends to continue sponsoring Ferrari, even after the European Union’s ban on tobacco advertising comes into force in 2006. The response might not share the sense of urgency and immediacy displayed by Pavlov’s dogs’ rings—smokers are always writing letters to editors huffily declaring they don’t light up just because they’ve seen an F1 driver on a billboard—but it’s an equally real reaction all the same.
In Montreal, the most cynical element of the industry’s “adaptation” to the law came from Benson & Hedges, which blocked out some letters on its cars’ spoilers to form “Be on Edge”. As edgy as a message can be, it forced viewers to mentally complete the brand name, aided by the usual, evocative yellow and black colours. BAT’s Lucky Strike car placed “Look Left” and “Look Right” on either wing, another cheeky name variation.
After the Montreal Grad Prix, four of the top finishers were disqualified for technical violations. Even when the race is over, then, the results are not always what they appear to be. Schumacher continues to win—he took the US Grand Prix a week after Montreal, with his and team mate Rubens Barrichello’s Marlboro logos covered up while those of BAT’s Takuma Sato were not, due to differing team obligations related to the US Master Settlement Agreement—and Big Tobacco continues to adapt. The Chinese Grand Prix may ban billboards but allow logos on cars and drivers. In India, health officials worry that billboards of Schumacher may constitute “surrogate advertising for a tobacco product”, but confusion reigns.
The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) insists that each party to the convention “shall, in accordance with its constitution or constitutional principles, undertake a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship”. Will that be enough to red flag tobacco industry sponsorship of F1 racing, or will the industry just keep motoring through the chicanes with its own special blend of cleverness, daring, and chicanery? The view from Montreal is decidedly unclear. A complaint about tobacco industry “creativity” has been filed with Health Canada, but it’s uncertain whether anything will be different when next year’s race spins around.
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