Threat to EU tobacco ad ban cheers advertisers

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BRUSSELS--Advertisers have given a cautious welcome to a proposal to scrap a law banning tobacco advertising and sponsorship in the European Union.

Advocate General Nial Fennelly of the European Court of Justice announced June 15 he has proposed that the Court annul the tobacco advertising directive that was adopted in July 1998.

"We are comforted by what we hear," says Stephan Loerke, EU affairs consultant at the World Federation of Advertisers, quickly adding: "It's not the end of the game yet. The real decision will be taken by the court before the end of this year."

Mr. Loerke says it is too early to draw conclusions from this latest decision for other advertising sectors that are also in the sights of some EU lawmakers. "I couldn't say this decision will be a precedent case for toys or alcohol advertising."

While these other sectors are facing challenges, mostly by laws in individual member states, Mr. Loerke says there isn't any immediate plan to ban advertising across Europe in any other sector than tobacco products. "Tobacco is a special case," he says.

The advocate general, who advises the judges at the EU's highest court, says the ban was wrongly adopted as a means to strengthen the European Single Market, when in fact it was a health measure. The EU would have had difficulty adopting the ban on health grounds, since powers in this area remain largely with national governments.

The European Court is responding to legal challenges to the tobacco advertising directive made by Germany, as well as by four tobacco companies -- Imperial, Gallaher, British American Tobacco and Rothmans.

The European Court normally follows the advice of the Advocate General. But if it doesn't, then billboard advertising of tobacco will be illegal by July 2001, newspaper and magazine advertising by 2002, and sports sponsorship by 2003 -- although "world level" sports such as Formula One auto racing can be exempted from the ban until 2006.

Copyright June 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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