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Hungary: F1 crashes through the barriers
  1. David Simpson

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    For reasons we can only guess at, the Hungarian government has helped Formula One (F1) drive a hole the size of a race track in the side of its tobacco promotion ban. The ramifications are likely to be felt worldwide, as the development provides a case history showing how to circumvent the legislation required in all countries that ratify the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

    Until recently, Hungarian tobacco control was an extraordinary success story. Despite the dominating and malign presence of transnational tobacco companies that arrived with the market economy, the country had forged ahead, turning to the courts when necessary for enforcement, to arrive as a regional model. From 2001, Hungary enjoyed a comprehensive ban on both direct and indirect tobacco advertising, with a few limited exemptions—point of sale advertising was one, and “worldwide international sporting events”, organised on at least three continents, was another.

    The “three continents” line was a giveaway—only F1 motor racing fitted the bill. But what seemed like an irritating exception that would end this year as a result of Hungary joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, the exemption seems to be here to stay. Hungarian colleagues are looking at a nightmare come true, as the fabric of hard wrought tobacco control begins to unravel. It is depressing enough that the chief perpetrator of the disaster was the government itself. To add insult to injury, the major player was an economics minister who originally qualified in medicine.

    Here is what happened. As the 1 August witching hour approached for F1 tobacco sponsorship in the EU, Hungary’s economics ministry was hard at work to get round the EU regulation—in the country that had proudly been 11th in the world to implement the WHO FCTC. F1 races had taken place in Hungary since 1986, in August of each year. So as a stop gap measure, a sneaky little amendment was made to the calendar, to fix the Grand Prix race for 31 July. Phew, squeaked through by just one day! Even if that made it legal, the race continued to be called the Marlboro Grand Prix, its countless mentions in news media therefore breaking several laws.

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    Although tobacco advertisements are banned in Hungary, the Marlboro cigarette brand was promoted by signs like this during July, as well as in much other publicity, by its name being part of the official title of the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix.

    But how to get round the health minister? The pre-2005 exemption could be granted by the minister of economic affairs, but he had to ask the opinion of his opposite number in the health ministry. The current health minister, mindful of increasing public opinion supporting health over tobacco, wrote back to say he could not agree to allowing tobacco sponsorship of the Grand Prix this year. The route the economics ministry took was to re-classify the event: as a spokeswoman for the ministry put it, “We’re saying that it isn’t a sports event but an event of outstanding economic significance.”

    Many questions arise not only about how this year’s Grand Prix went ahead as it did, but how it now seems set to continue for years to come. Legislative drafts were urgently rushed through parliament, apparently ignoring compulsory consultation—no one from the health ministry was consulted over the final version of the bill, yet a senior official from the economic ministry presented the draft bill to the health committee as if it had already been agreed by the health ministry. Furthermore, the government failed to consult the National Smoke-free Association, the country’s leading tobacco control non-governmental organisation, as it was required to do.

    How did such short cuts get taken, and how did an amendment to the new bill, tabled by three members of parliament of whom one was a medical doctor and chairman of the parliamentary health committee, get into the final bill? Its effect was to ensure that F1 tobacco promotion can run until 2011, the end date of the contract between the F1 association FOA and the government.

    Above all, what motivated the economics minister? Not economics, it would seem. For among the few silver linings to the dark clouds over health was some important publicity about just what a rotten decision it was—in economic terms. If this annoyed the economics minister, he could hardly blame the health lobby: the article was the front page lead in the July edition of Manager Magazin, a serious business journal. It bluntly asked, “Is this circus worth it for us?” and cited some two decades of deficits, describing how, since 2002 (the first year of the present government) the 70% state owned race organiser Hungaroring Sport Ltd has been receiving truly colossal subsidies. This year they are estimated at 2.5–3 billion Forints (around US$11.6–15.2 million). Despite these massive handouts, an accompanying chart showed only one year, 2003, as “profitable”. Hungaroring’s boss said Manager Magazin had got its calculations wrong: if excise tax on fuel bought by foreigners who visit Hungary for the race is added into the equation, the race becomes slightly profitable, or at least breaks even.

    Wrangling about profit or loss seems fairly pointless when such a huge amount of taxpayers’ money has been hurled at the race; but the subsidy seems little short of obscene when it is considered that in 2004, less than 100 million Forints (US$508 000) was spent on control, not even a 20th of the F1 subsidy. Hungary is a small country—just 10 million people—but it has a large burden of premature deaths caused by tobacco, about 28 000 each year. How on earth does the government, not least the doctor in charge of the ministry of economic affairs, justify this imbalance, and the determined undermining of the country’s tobacco control legislation?