Senior health officials were subjected to embarrassing scrutiny by MPs last week over the government's decision to exclude Formula One motor racing from its tobacco advertising ban.

The sport was exempted in 1997. It subsequently emerged that the head of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, had made a£1m donation to the Labour Party.

Formula One will be covered in a few years, although the whole ban is currently stalled by legal action by four tobacco companies.

Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson and Health Education Authority director Paul Lincoln were forced into an evasive defence of the exemption at the Commons health select committee.

Professor Donaldson was repeatedly asked by Conservative MP and former junior health minister Simon Burns whether his stated support for government anti-smoking policy extended to the exemption.

In an answer that will delight those who oppose an advertising ban, Professor Donaldson suggested that the decision, which was taken before he took up his post, would 'not make a strong difference to the programme'.

He also said the government was committed to closing the loophole.

'One is never satisfied with a loophole.

It would be good if all loopholes had been closed as quickly as possible.

That's as far as I'm prepared to go.'

In an answer which suggested that his private beliefs were at odds with the HEA line, Mr Lincoln said: '(Speaking) as a public health professional. . . many people in the profession would have liked to have seen curtailment of Formula One at an earlier date.'

The committee is at the start of a series of hearings into the tobacco industry and the health risks of smoking.

Professor Donaldson was asked if he thought governments had been 'complacent' by failing to take a hard line on tobacco, despite evidence from as far back as the 1950s that it was harmful.

He replied that he had known all the previous CMOs during his professional lifetime, and knew they were all committed to anti-smoking measures.

'You would have to ask them (if they were frustrated by government inaction). If I had been in their post I would have been very frustrated.'

MP and GP Peter Brand suggested there should be a tobacco regulatory authority, as there was a Food Standards Agency and a Medical Controls Agency.

EU directive aims to tighten labelling The regulations governing labelling of the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes should be tightened up, the health select committee was told.

A new EU directive would ban the use of terms such as 'mild' and 'light', cut tar and nicotine levels and increase the area of a cigarette pack covered by health warnings to 25 per cent. The proposals will now be discussed by EU governments.