London (CNSNews.com) - A near-total ban on tobacco advertising will be enforced in Britain by the end of the year after a bill cleared a final legislative hurdle and was set to become law.
The bill will ban press, billboard, mail and internet advertising of cigarettes and will phase out sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies.
The House of Commons passed the bill late Monday and the legislation now requires royal assent - the approval of the queen - before becoming law. In most cases, royal assent is a formality.
The advertising ban fulfills a campaign pledge made by Prime Minister Tony Blair during his first successful election bid as leader of the Labor Party in 1997. Since then, however, the legislation has been delayed and dogged by scandal.
A bill identical to the one approved Monday was held up last year when a general election was called and Parliament disbanded.
Sporting events will have until the end of 2003 to find replacement sponsors and "global" sporting events held in Britain, such as Formula One auto races, will be exempt from the ban until 2006.
The exemption caused controversy when the ban first was proposed on a Europe-wide level. It was revealed at the time that Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had given the Labor Party a $1.5 million donation and held meetings with top government officials. The party eventually returned the money.
But with the support of Labor's large majority and the third-party Liberal Democrats, the current bill sailed through the House of Commons with little friction.
"Banning tobacco advertising does cut consumption, but only if it is comprehensive," Labor health minister Hazel Blears told legislators.
The government predicted the ban will save 3,000 lives a year and save more than half a billion dollars in expenses incurred by the state-run National Health Service.
The numbers were disputed by the Conservative Party. Tory health spokesman Tim Loughton said that although smoking was a "filthy habit", no definitive link between advertising and the number of smokers has been established.
The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (TMA), which represents Britain's major cigarette companies, has called the ad ban "unnecessary."
TMA chief executive Tim Lord said that while he was disappointed with the ban, the bill's approval by legislators didn't surprise him.
"It's sad that the government felt it needed to go with a total ban," he said.
The TMA argues that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that ad bans reduce smoking and that voluntary measures have cut British cigarette consumption by 37 percent over the past three decades.
On the other side of the debate, the London-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) welcomed the passage of the advertising bill.
"It's a real victory for public health," said ASH research manager Amanda Sandford. "It looks like we'll finally see the end to these advertisements in the U.K."
Now that ASH has achieved one of its key goals, Sandford said, the group would be pushing for tougher rules on smoking in British offices and other public places.
"Studies suggest that at least three million people (in this country) are exposed to smoke in the workplace," she said. "That's inexcusable in this day and age."
Meanwhile, a minor battle is shaping up in the determination of regulations based on the bill. Sandford said her organization was still concerned about the possibility of advertising expanding at the point of sale.
"Cigarette shelving and so forth could suddenly become the new billboards," she said. "We're urging the government to make rules surrounding point-of-sale displays as tight and restrictive as possible."
Lord said that his organization would be working with the government to make sure that point-of-sale rules are clear.
"We want to get into a serious discussion with the government in this area," he said, while declining to say exactly what type of rules the TMA would approve of.
"We're keen to make sure that we're on the same page as the government when it comes to point-of-sale displays," he said.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.