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Hazy rules on tobacco ads in sports put media in spot

07-September-2004
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Hazy rules on tobacco ads in sports put media in spot

The ban on tobacco advertising seems to have put the media in a quandary. It is not sure what its role should be. Does it carry news and analysis on the subject and does it cover sporting events sponsored by tobacco companies?

The bone of contention mainly is Formula One Racing that is beamed to the country and carried in publications as a sporting event.

With the Health Ministry shooting off show-cause notices to publications for having printed pictures of Formula One Champion Michael Schumacher's attire displaying a tobacco brand, a debate on what's legitimate and what's not has surfaced.

The Government, on its part, is grappling with enforcing the `Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products (Provision of Advertisements, Regulation of Production Supply, Distribution, Commercial and Trade) Act 2003', and said that such notices were being sent out to "violators" in both print and audio-visual media asking them not only to desist from violating the law in future, but also provide details of measures taken to avoid such violations.

Sources in national broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) said the channel was forced not to bid for rights to telecast this year's Formula One Racing event as it would have meant showing the sponsor - a major international tobacco player - on the players' T-shirts, on the cars and all across the venue of the race.

ESPN officials confess to a similar dilemma on what course of action to take in such cases. "Across the world, every sports personality and event has its own sponsors. For large events such as Formula One, we are bound to carry the feed we get. We cannot tamper with the feed and block out the logo of the sponsor. This goes against international sports property conventions," they said.

They said the channel continues to show and popularise games such as Formula One and that the Government has, as yet, not told them to do otherwise.

SET Max officials said the channel has not received any notice from the Government on any violation as far as sports and tobacco advertising is concerned, but conceded that such a regulation may be tough to follow.

However, senior officials in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) said every television channel "should, at all costs, conform to the law of the land in which it is telecasting its programmes. Indian laws have completely banned advertising by tobacco brands - whether directly or in a surrogate fashion - and all channels must comply".

But most TV channels do not agree with this reasoning. Sources in DD said that while neither their channels nor AIR carry advertisements of even paan masala and gutkha, the private channels continue to air these ads daily. They contend that a complete ban on tobacco product advertising should perhaps be debated, terming it "draconian".

The tobacco industry, too, has its reservations. It feels that it is extremely difficult to monitor international sports events being beamed into the country and also point out that there is no legislation barring the media from carrying a photograph or a clip of an event. "That's not an advertisement or publicity," said a tobacco company official. Anti-tobacco activists also conceded that regarding sports being sponsored overseas, there is ambiguity in the law at this juncture and such an issue should be taken up at a global forum.

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