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EU/UK: ad ban busting plan

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Tobacco control advocates in the United Kingdom and other western European countries which have not yet banned tobacco promotion are busy trying to ensure the effectiveness of legislation being drafted under the European Union’s ad ban directive. Of greatest concern is some governments’ apparent weakness of resolve. The cause of this is unclear, but may be presumed to be exacerbated by budgetary restrictions and the near certainty of the industry’s now routine twin procedures of (a) legal challenges and (b) deliberate “breach-and-see” tactics to test out the government’s commitment to its new law.

The big loophole in the EU ad ban is on branding of non-tobacco products. However, the wording does not give an unqualified exemption as a right. The relevant article in the directive (98/43/EC, 3, para 2) says that the ad ban “shall not prevent the member states from allowing a brand name already used in good faith for both tobacco products and for other goods and services traded or offered . . . prior to July 1998 to be used for the advertising of those other goods and services.” This wording does not requiremember states to exempt brand stretching, but merelyallows them the choice to exempt it. It can still be banned, and the exact wording suggests that member states can do it on a case-by-case basis.

Although the directive says that the advertising in question must be distinct in appearance from that of tobacco brands, the brand names will be retained and the positive associations generated through advertising items such as boots (Camel), coffee (Benson & Hedges), and clothing (Marlboro), will strengthen the tobacco branding. Health advocates note that one of the terms of the Minnesota settlement agreed in May 1998 deals with this type of advertising and does not allow the tobacco brand name to be used. The parties to the Minnesota settlement include companies that market tobacco-branded boots and clothing in Europe (see the article on “Marlboro Classics” clothing inTobacco Control 1996;5:340–341). In addition, recent legislation in both Tasmania and Quebec, which have obvious similarities to western Europe, has unequivocally banned brand stretching.

Meanwhile, two developments in London in recent months indicate what tobacco companies may expect to get away with unless the British government is prepared to be courageous. Camel introduced publicity materials in shoe shops selling its Camel boots, sporting a new version of its cigarette logo using a different typeface, though still set in an upturned crescent. True to form, it shows a person who is unquestionably far too young to appear in the regular cigarette ads still permitted in the UK. He is skipping energetically in his colourful Camel boots, the sort of movement that many older people could not even attempt, and which would be impossible for a peripheral vascular disease patient, just to pick a random example.

A postcard ad for the new-look Camel boots brand, a handout in a British shoeshop.

A Marlboro Classics shop has appeared in Covent Garden, home to numerous fashionable clothes shops, with a massive supporting ad campaign on the side of London’s famous red buses. Marlboro has also used a different typeface, but the theme is as tough and rugged as ever. In fact, the 40-page A3 colour brochure distributed free in the shops (and no doubt throughout Marlboro’s growing chain of shops around the world) contains nothing but grainy pictures, often without the products clearly in view, in an attempt to convey a truly tough and independent image, like we are supposed to have of the Wild West. Presumably, the grainy, out-of-focus look is similar to the way the world appears through the eyes of, say, a patient suffering from macular degeneration caused by smoking, or simply by a lung cancer patient heavily sedated with post-operative drugs.

The Marlboro Classics brochure and an ad for the brand in the United Kingdom.