POLITICS

Published: 09/05/2002, Volume II2, No. 5804 Page 19

The funny thing about the controversy over the imminent ban on tobacco advertising is how it is the kind of issue that mixes high politics and low: Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone's£1m donation to Labour coffers and German philosopher Friedrich von Hayek's seminal work, The Road to Serfdom.

Both Bernie and Fred were quoted during the Commons second reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill which is itself the product of high and low politics: a backbench Liberal Democrat bill introduced in the Lords where a very similar measure sponsored by the government stalled in the last parliament.

Only this time it got through the halfreformed upper house, leaving Tony Blair and Alan Milburn the awkward choice of either whipping their MPs against a measure in their manifesto or embracing the indignity of picking up a Lib Dem bill. With comparatively good grace (by his standards), Mr Milburn sensibly did the latter.

But not before a very odd incident occurred - the appearance in Rupert Murdoch's newspaper, The Times, of a 5,000-word spread explaining why Mr Ecclestone's 1996 donation (later given back) was not a bribe to Labour to give F1 motor racing's tobacco sponsorship a seven-year reprieve, but a 'thank you' for a decision already taken.

In other words, Bernie did nowt wrong.

I am not a conspiracy theorist about money and politics. Every case is different. I was unpersuaded, for example, that the£50,000 Labour donation by PowderJect ensured it got the contract to provide the government with an anti-terrorist supply of smallpox vaccine.

It is now being investigated by the National Audit Office.

Nor do I believe that Lord Sainsbury's role as science minister ensured that research grants to the Sainsbury labs (they are looking at GM crops) increased - not least because Lord S is fabulously wealthy and gives the labs far more himself. But the Ecclestone affair still rankles and if it transpires that The Times' spread was tied to his larger interests, racing or TV sponsorship, I would not be surprised.

Did anything surprising emerge from the latest skirmish on the muddy tobacco battlefield? I thought so. For one thing, the deputy chair of British American Tobacco, one Ken Clarke, so brave and defiant in so many things, failed to put in an appearance or vote with Dr Liam Fox as he rallied his troops to vote against the bill.

This despite him quoting the libertarian von Hayek as admitting there are 'no hard and fast rules' about good liberals resisting state interference in free choice. The Tory vote (Ayes 130, Noes 349) to reject the bill because of 'insufficient evidence that it will lead to a quantifiable reduction in tobacco consumption' also surprised me. Are we really still debating this point?

Apparently, yes. Dr Fox, an ardent antismoker, says the debate is about means, not ends, and made what I thought was a good medic's point when he mocked the Lib Dems for wanting to curb tobacco while advocating legalisation of the 'good deal more carcinogenic' cannabis.

But what the case seemed to boil down to was that the 'multi-pronged'Tory mix of high pricing, health education and restricted advertising - it cut tobacco consumption in Britain by 37 per cent between 1971-96 - is the best formula. Cigarette smuggling, which costs Gordon Brown£7bn a year in lost taxes, is a far more serious cheap-fag-supply problem, he claimed. Not to mention EU 'cash-for-cancer' subsidies to tobacco farmers, one-third of whose product is exported to the third world.

There was also a legal argument, advanced by genial lawyer Edward Garnier that the bill's claims to comply with the EU's human rights laws will come unstuck, even though the advertising ban brings Britain into line with other EU states.

We shall see. Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has long since joined the ban lobby on a habit that kills 120,000 Britons a year, 5 million since the cancer link was established, and is anchored firmly in advertising that catches 83 per cent of smokers before they are 20, including my eldest son, 27, who, try as he may, just can't seem to give up.

Advertising works. That is what the 20th century taught us and the arguments against this modest bit of pragmatism struck me as notably feeble. If it reduces consumption by an expected 2.5 per cent, UK deaths will fall by 3,000.

'I have seldom taken part in a debate where, if we voted the right way, 3,000 lives would be saved, ' said our old chum Frank Dobson.

will not that do?