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Turkey: F1 overtaken by health team

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More good news of coalitions at work, this time in Turkey. As reported previously, for a country with no interest in motor sport (or much sport other than soccer), a curiously persistent campaign has been waged recently, apparently trying to make people think that Formula 1 motor racing would be a desirable, even essential addition to their lives (see Tobacco Control1999;8:243). The sudden appearance of F1 references in advertisements for other goods, the run of unprompted, favourable comment in the press, and the emergence of pro-F1 supporters saying how wonderful it would be for Turkey to host F1 races, all reeks of the tobacco industry. But then the minister for tourism began a much more open campaign. Turkey's tourist industry is securely based on a long coastline of gorgeous beaches, a vast wealth of fascinating historical sights, and modern facilities coupled with courteous people with a still tangible colourful, traditional lifestyle. Notwithstanding this, the minister implied that F1 presented Turkey with the most extraordinary opportunity for development it would ever be lucky enough to embrace. It was when Mr Arkaçali, the former health minister who was the original sponsor of the tobacco control bill which ultimately became law, banning all forms of tobacco promotion, appeared in the media to back the proposal that health advocates realised the situation had become dangerous.

Turkish poster stating “Don't be duped—smoking kills” and urging that the 1996 law banning tobacco advertising must not be changed.

The threat to the law was so serious that health advocates approached groups working in other fields, as well as calling on the international colleagues to take action. A coalition started to form, soon reaching 35 organisations, and the minister of tourism and Mr Akarçali began to receive letters and faxes from around the world. These explained how F1 was dominated by the tobacco industry, which had clearly identified the sport as the best way to go on promoting tobacco in the region after the European ad ban had come into effect, and how this would blow apart Turkey's hard won tobacco control law. The coalition adopted the slogan “I am not going to give away my law”, holding demonstrations and organising press coverage around the country. Adapting a World No Tobacco Day slogan “Don't be duped, smoking kills!”, the coalition's message was “Don't be duped: F1 is advertising—and smoking still kills!”. The outreach potential of some coalition members made them hard to ignore: the consumers rights association, for example, has over 10 000 members, and is adept at lobbying opinion leaders; in short, they can command the attention of politicians keen to hold on to their jobs.

The coalition's work was made much easier by access to previously secret internal industry documents. One, a major survey by Philip Morris of advertising opportunities, concluded that F1 was the only remaining communications medium in some restricted markets. Others showed how the industry had manipulated the Turkish media, much of which is linked to the local tobacco industry through family ties, during the passage of the tobacco control law. Through such documents being aired through the coalition's work with the media, it became obvious to the Turkish public that dirty work was afoot, and sensing this crucial enlightenment, the previous F1 enthusiasts changed their tune. The tourism minister guaranteed to defend the law, and Mr Arkaçali thanked those who had written to him for their prompt action in support of the measures that began life through his efforts. He assured them that no-one could modify it, while mentioning that he would have no objection to any motor race without any tobacco advertising.

Health advocates know better than to think they have a lasting victory, and suspect that after a summer truce, big tobacco will try again. But the coalition now has a say in the agenda, and if circumventing the intentions of health policy were comparatively easy for the tobacco industry in the past, neither it nor the politicians can expect to get away with doing tobacco's dirty work unobserved in the future.