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On the same day that Formula One (F1) strategies to undermine tobacco control legislation were discussed at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Helsinki, news agencies reported that the Canadian Grand Prix was to be dropped from the 2004 calendar. F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone insisted that tobacco advertising was the sole reason for the decision. “Our problem is quite simple. The Formula One teams with tobacco-related sponsorship lose part of their revenue when a certain percentage of the events ban tobacco sponsorship.” This was the reason the Belgian Grand Prix was not included in the 2003 calendar, he added.
In Belgium a law was passed in 1997 banning all tobacco advertising and sponsorship from 1 January 1999 (including F1 sponsorship). Since January 1997, there have been five attempts in the Belgian parliament (between November 1997 and December 2002) to overturn the law, which all failed. However, another attempt last July was successful for the F1 lobby and resulted in a delay of the enforcement of the ban on tobacco sponsorship of international events such as F1 until July 2005. One characteristic of the Belgian Grand Prix is that the organiser is Ecclestone. He controls the company Spa Activités, which is mandated by F1’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), to organise the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa Francorchamps.
The Ecclestone principle is simple: the profits for organising the Belgian Grand Prix are for Ecclestone, and the costs for maintaining the circuit are for the government of the Walloon region. Since 1977 the Walloon region invested some €44 million (US$50 million) in the circuit at Francorchamps. It may be prestigious to organise a Grand Prix, but it is a myth to believe that it is an economic success story for the region (at least in Belgium).
It is a well known tobacco industry strategy to use exemptions for F1 tobacco sponsorship as a way to undermine tobacco control legislation in different countries around the world. So far the FIA has been successful with Chancellor Kohl of Germany in 1997, with Prime Minister Prodi of Italy in 1997, with the UK Labour government in 1997 and 2002, and with Brazil and Belgium in 2003. There are no reasons to believe that the FIA will stop this kind of tobacco friendly lobbying activity in October 2006, despite what they promised in October 2000.
The most startling evidence of the way FIA chief Bernie Ecclestone operates was revealed when he was tricked by a Canadian radio prankster last August into thinking that he was talking to Canada’s prime minister, Jean Chretien. Ecclestone was willing to consider offering a job to the Canadian PM, if Chretien could persuade the parliament to agree with an exemption for tobacco advertisement at the Canadian Grand Prix. Marc-Antoine Audette (the radio personality posing as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien): “It’s simple, in November 2003 I’m going to retire and maybe let’s say one year after that we could work together.” Ecclestone: “That would be nice. I’m sure…” Audette: “I’m sure I can convince parliament to maybe soften a little bit the loss.” Ecclestone: “Super, super, super, super, nine o’clock Wednesday morning I’ll call you.” [The interview can be heard at: http://www.ckoi.com/ckoi2/meilleurs_moments.php and a transcript found on the same site.]
Ecclestone loves to speak to prime ministers and to put governments under pressure. In an interview with a Belgian newspaper, he said: “A prime minister who is not interested in Formula One is an idiot.” In September, Ecclestone attended a ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, to celebrate the start of construction of the new F1 circuit in the presence of the prime minister, Mr Tayyip Erdogan. The land on which the construction is taking place is legally designated as a forest area and a water collection basin for Istanbul’s drinking water, covered by a law that strictly bans construction.
Protests were staged by environmentalists, the local chambers of architects, forest engineers, city planners, and agricultural engineers, and, of course, medical and other health groups, who said that the scheme breached environmental protection regulations on several counts. The prime minister retorted that more trees would be planted in the area, and that organisations that had not planted trees (meaning environmental groups) had no right to criticise the project.
Consultants to the prime minister confessed that the F1 organisers explicitly told the government that they would organise the race in Turkey only if tobacco sponsorship were allowed. The project will cost the Turkish government an estimated US$100 million and the first Grand Prix race is due to take place in 2005. No doubt Turkey, and the other new Grand Prix countries such as China and Bahrain, will be requested to amend their tobacco control legislation.
Under the terms of the FCTC all countries signing up to the treaty are required to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship if such a measure is allowed under their constitution. When the FCTC comes into force, it will be the end of the FIA’s ability to force countries to make a choice between F1 and effective public health law. There will no longer be any need for Bernie Ecclestone to bother prime ministers around the world. Perhaps it’s now up to the Canadian prime minister to offer Ecclestone a new job.
As this article went to press, it appeared that Ecclestone had not been successful this time. The Canadian Grand Prix was reinstated in the F1 calendar, despite the refusal of the Canadian government to amend the law.