London (CNSNews.com) - British tobacco manufacturers are welcoming a British court ruling that temporarily prevents the Labor government from outlawing tobacco advertising. Labor government ministers, however, are predicting an eventual victory in their battle to ban tobacco ads - a battle they say they are waging to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Four major companies, along with the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (TMA), argued that the British government should not implement its advertising ban on December 10, as it planned to do, while awaiting the outcome of a challenge in a European court against a European Union directive outlawing cigarette advertising.
Britain's High Court ruled Friday that it was "strongly arguable" the tobacco companies would succeed in their European court case.
The government is appealing the decision, but if it is unsuccessful, it will have to wait - perhaps as long as a year - until the European Court of Justice rules on the validity of the directive outlawing cigarette advertising.
TMA chief executive David Swan welcomed the decision, but was careful not to appear smug, saying the body recognized the government was committed to "make progress on this issue."
"The industry remains ready to resume dialogue with the government on the basis of the long established system of voluntary agreements," he said in a statement.
The companies concerned, Imperial, Gallaher, Rothmans UK and British American Tobacco, reject claims that advertising encourages people to start smoking, saying it only affects consumer choice on which brands to use.
An EU directive of July 1998 required member states to begin the process of outlawing tobacco advertising, starting in July 2001, when posters will be banned. Media advertising would be banned in July 2002, and sponsorship of sporting and cultural events would be banned two years later. Formula One motor racing, which relies heavily on cigarette advertising, was given a special three-year extension beyond that.
By the end of the phasing-out process, advertising will only be legal inside shops selling cigarettes, and in specialty tobacco trade publications.
The directive prompted several legal challenges. The British companies referred the matter to the European Court of Justice, arguing, among other things, that the matter was outside the competency of the European Commission, and saying the directive was incompatible with the freedom of expression and other rights.
The German government, and German, Greek, Austrian and Swiss firms, also mounted separate legal actions. European publishers complained that the advertising ban would slash revenues and undermine the continent's "pluralistic" press.
But the Blair government, citing urgent health reasons, sought nonetheless to speed up the advertising ban in Britain, drafting regulations to bring the start date forward to December 10.
Effective on that date, the government had intended to outlaw advertising of cigarettes on billboards and in cinemas, newspapers and magazines.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn expressed disappointment over Friday's ruling, saying the industry would "stop at nothing to try to undermine the advertising ban, which will make our nation healthier.
"Banning tobacco advertising is a vital step towards cutting cancer and heart disease," he said. "It will help reduce the 120,000 deaths from smoking in the UK each year."
Both Milburn and Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper vowed the ban - a Labor Party election manifesto commitment - would be introduced.
"We will not be deflected by the tobacco industry," said Cooper. "This ban will happen."
The opposition Conservative Party responded to the court ruling by calling the government's competence into question and saying that its policy on tobacco was in disarray.
The Conservatives have generally been supportive of, and closely tied to, the tobacco industry. Former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke is deputy chairman of British American Tobacco.
But last July, party unity looked shaky after a lawmaker involved in overseas development - acting with the support of Conservative Party leader William Hague - accused the tobacco industry of targeting Third World children in "aggressive" marketing campaigns.
Member of Parliament's Gary Streeter's allegation prompted a row in the party, with some lawmakers warning the tobacco industry may be less likely to support the Conservatives in the future.
Streeter defended his action, saying urging companies to act responsibly was "a very conservative thing to do."