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European Union moves at last

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At the time of writing, the tobacco industry will be desperately crafting its strategy to try to wreck the historic ban on tobacco advertising and promotion to which health ministers of the European Union (EU) countries agreed last November. The referral of the agreed directive to the European Parliament opened up the historic, if imperfect, directive to perils from two different groupings of members of parliament, which have directly opposite aims.

Those genuinely committed to public health want to strengthen it to remove anomalies such as the temporary reprieve for tobacco funding of Formula 1 (F1) motor sport. This concession was made to bring on board the United Kingdom, which got itself into a lamentable mess by apparently pledging help to F1 bosses, possibly in recognition of electoral support. On the other wing are those parliamentarians who seem more interested in the welfare of the tobacco industry than of the people who voted them into power. They want to amend the directive too, possibly even in a way that may appear to toughen it, but that will be unlikely to have any effect for the simple reason that any amendment by either side will cause a vital delay in the earliest date the directive could be finalised, and set to be translated into law in each member country. If unopposed, this would fall within the time in which the rotating presidency of the EU is held by Britain. Any delay, however, would mean that the crucially different presidency of Austria would handle the directive’s progress once it got back to the parliament. Britain, having got its F1 concession, is supportive, but Austria voted against the directive with its neighbour Germany on what appeared to be a straight industry ticket.

Germany might well hold the title “Worst for Tobacco Control” in the “Countries Which Should Know Better” category: a highly technocratic nation, world leaders in many areas of science, where neither the government nor the majority of doctors seem yet to be living in the second half of the twentieth century with respect to tobacco. (In fact, that may be one of the main problems: recent historical research shows how the fanatical anti-smoking policies of the Nazis may have so blighted the subject of smoking and disease that for the past half century scientists and politicians alike may have steered clear of any involvement, for fear of their reputations being contaminated by the association (Smith GD, et al. Smoking and health promotion in Nazi Germany. J Epidemiol Commun Health1994;48:220–3).

As readers of Tobacco Control will know, the importance of the directive goes far wider than the EU itself (see Tobacco Control 1996;5:9–10). The many countries of central and eastern Europe that want to join the EU will have to enact similar legislation to qualify for membership. Countries of the British Commonwealth, and all the other former colonies of the United Kingdom, France, and Spain, whose system of government, laws, and institutions are often still closely linked to their former colonial rulers, will at last have the right example to follow. Furthermore, it could catalyse action in still more countries, such as many in Africa, which are influenced by EU policy as recipients of EU development aid. In the long term, this must be the largest legislative challenge the tobacco industry has ever faced. The key question is whether health campaigners in the European parliament can restrain themselves and settle for an imperfect directive, and replicate at least the slim majority acquired by their health ministers first time round. The industry will be doing everything in its considerable power to see that they fail.

As we go to press, we are pleased to report that the common position of the advertising directive has been agreed, and must now be accepted by the Council of the European Union. In due course, every member state, and those awaiting membership, must pass legislation to ban tobacco promotion.