AD RESTRICTIONS BACK UNDER FIRE;EC LOOKS TO OVERTURN FRENCH LAW AS INCOMPATIBLE WITH UNION RULES

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[paris] For years the bete noire of the French media and advertising industry, France's law severely restricting alcohol advertising and virtually banning tobacco advertising appears set to be overturned by the European Commission as incompatible with European Union rules.

The so-called Evin law, passed in 1992, is by far the most restrictive in Europe, and has posed major problems for the advertising community. The ban on tobacco and alcohol ads has cost agencies and media a total of about $180 million in lost revenue during the past four years.

The ad ban also has caused severe problems for French broadcasters, who at times are unable to retransmit foreign sporting events in which event organizers and teams use stadium surfaces or even uniforms to display sponsor brand names.

Critics argue that neither the dire economic effects of the law within France nor the disharmony the law has led to within the European Union are justified.

The higher interests of protecting public health haven't been served by the law, they say, since the ad bans haven't led to decreased consumption.

But the real elements that will bring the law down, they continue, are not economic, but legal: the Evin law is now being viewed by the European Commission as violating European Union rules protecting the free circulation of goods and information.

Because of this, the European Commission is warning the French government that the law must be reviewed, said Jacques Bille, VP of the French Association of Advertising Agencies and leader of the attack on the law at the EU headquarters in Brussels.

Unless this is done, the commission suggests, France may find itself before the European Court of Justice for breaking EU rules.

"There are converging elements that undermine the law," Mr. Bille said.

"Some are the serious economic effects, and others are the law's clear violation of European rules and objectives.

"Meanwhile, there are other pressing considerations, such as France hosting the 1998 World Cup of soccer. Among the seven main sponsors of the event is Budweiser, which certainly will not put its money in if its name is blacked out," he said.

"Where will organizers find the money to replace it?" Mr. Bille said.

Internal considerations are also playing a role. With tobacco companies such as Camel, Dunhill, Rothmans and Marlboro being prevalent as sponsors of Formula One auto racing, Mr. Bille points out, the French government had to promise circuit organizers it would replace lost ad revenues with millions in public money in order to keep the French Grand Prix from being struck from the calendar.

"The bottom line is that the Evin law has good intentions, but either no effect in diminishing alcohol and tobacco consumption, or adverse effects in the advertising and broadcasting industries," Mr. Bille said.

"And on top of that, it breaks EU rules. Because of all this, the European Commission is asking France to modify the law for the good of everyone."

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