Trouble may be brewing around the issue of sports sponsorship by the alcohol industry. A leaked report last week from the UK's Labour Party revealed plans to ban alcohol sponsorship if they take office after next year's General Election. In a pattern strikingly familiar to the successful effort to ban tobacco sponsorship a broad coalition of European health activists and legislators are gearing up for a battle to toughen anti-alcohol legislation. According to Professor Joe Barry of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland a ban is "inevitable" and "it will be seen as crazy to have allowed alcohol sponsorship of sport, in the same way as tobacco".
In the UK a ban on alcohol sponsorship is already supported by powerful voices such as the British Medical Association and the House of Commons Health Select Committee. The MPs have called for a UK version of France's Loi Évin, which bans alcohol advertising on television, in cinemas, and from sponsoring of sporting events. Next year the European Commission will launch a new 'Alcohol Strategy' and it is possible, even likely, that action to regulate sports sponsorship will be included. This would be in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation's 'Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Effects of Alcohol'.
These developments come at a difficult time for F1, facing budget pressures but also a growing profile in alcohol sponsorship. Earlier this month Force India announced a new sponsorship agreement with Smirnoff which now joins Martini and Johnny Walker as major brands in the sport. The sensitivity about alcohol sponsorship in motor racing is especially acute because of the role of drinking in road accidents. In the European Union 25% of all road deaths are attributed to alcohol misuse and it is estimated that 6,500 deaths would be avoided if all drivers obeyed drink driving laws.
No doubt the alcohol and advertising industry will oppose EU proposals for a ban but there is understandable caution about alcohol sponsorship in motor sport. The European Sponsorship Association (ESA) has issued voluntary guidelines for the alcohol industry which warns that; "Particular care should be taken of alcohol sponsorships where motor sport is involved and, in such cases, appropriate messages regarding responsible drinking should be communicated". Arguably the ESA guidelines mean that the likes of Smirnoff or Martini ought to be paying for 'don't drink and drive' warnings alongside their logos on F1 wings and side pods. For the health lobby the weak application of voluntary guidelines like the ESA's are exactly the justification needed for legislative action.
The emergence of the alcohol sponsorship issue will also be a major challenge for the FIA and Jean Todt who has made road safety a major theme of his Presidency. In the 1990s former FIA President Max Mosley tried to broker a compromise deal on tobacco with the EU to gain time for teams to find alternative sponsors. He succeeded but the sport was mired in controversy as a result.
Now Jean Todt faces the awkward tightrope of similarly defending the interests of the sport and maintaining a credible commitment to road safety. This will be no easy task and makes the FIA's relationship with the WHO especially sensitive as it is the United Nation's agency with responsibility not just for alcohol control but also road safety.