When the E.U.'s health ministers voted last month to ban tobacco advertising in the press, on the radio and on the Internet, many of them felt a strong sense of déjàvu. Why? Because in most E.U. countries tobacco ads have been banned for years, and the E.U. as a whole passed a directive to that effect in 1998. After a challenge from Germany, the European Court of Justice struck down that law, arguing that its measures went beyond the E.U.'s proper role of protecting the single market. Even this time, the Commission concedes that "in the absence of any Community action, natural evolution in this area seems to lead legislation of individual member states in the direction of a total ban of any tobacco advertising."
If that's true, why did the E.U. need to act? Like a smoker who keeps coming back to the butt, Brussels can't stop itself from regulating. This version doesn't ban ads in cinemas and on billboards, which the court ruled were strictly within national control, so E.U. officials are confident that it will become law by April and stick this time. The German government is seriously considering a challenge to the new directive, which would have to be launched by the end of this month. The justice and finance ministries are said to be in favor, while the health and consumer-affairs ministries are not; Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is disposed to take on the fight.
Why Germany? The country is one of the E.U.'s leading tobacco exporters and an implacable ad-ban foe. Print ads for cigarettes are still allowed there, as they are in Spain, Greece, Luxembourg and Austria (and in the U.S. the global epicenter of the antismoking movement). But for most German publications, potential revenue loss isn't the only issue: tobacco advertising has been shrinking for years, now accounting for only about €60 million of €4 billion in annual sales. Rather, they say, it is the principle, and the fear of where the trend might lead. "We know it's a problematic product, and if the authorities want to double the price to discourage people buying, that's fine with us," says Wolfgang Fürstner, director of the German Association of Magazine Publishers. "But tobacco is a legal product, one that governments tax and whose growers get E.U. subsidies. Advertising shouldn't bear the burden alone." (Time Inc., which publishes TIME, also believes publishers should have the right to accept or reject advertisements for any legal product.) Jacques Bille, head of the Association of French Advertising Agencies, agrees. "What are we going to say when they decide to ban advertising for alcohol, or snack foods? This puts us on a slippery slope."
The new E.U. directive also bans tobacco ads, from July 2005 on, at events like Formula One racing, where today the logos of Marlboro and other smokes are as ubiquitous as champagne showers. That date throws a wrench in the gears of the sport's governing body, which last year announced an effort to wean racing teams from their tobacco habit by October 2006. "The law puts us in a difficult position, and will disrupt international motor sport in the E.U.," says a spokesman. Indeed, individual Formula One events are already going up in smoke. Belgium's government jumped the gun on the E.U. common approach with an immediate ban on tobacco ads at sporting events. As a result, there will be no Belgian Grand Prix at Spa this year. Unless some other generous advertisers with acceptable products step up in the next two years, other European racetracks could lose their main attractions too.