China falls victim to deadly alliance of Formula One and British American Tobacco

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The staging of the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai this weekend confirms Formula One motor racing as a leading vector of the global tobacco pandemic, and threatens to make a mockery of China’s signing of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, according to health policy experts.

Jeff Collin and Kelley Lee, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Centre on Global Change and Health, writing in today’s Lancet with colleagues from the Mayo Clinic, note that ‘the very staging of this event constitutes a triumph for the tobacco companies, reflecting both the enormity of the commercial opportunity presented by China and the strategic value of the sport’.

China is by far the world’s largest cigarette market, with its 350 million smokers accounting for one in three cigarettes smoked globally.

The authors have been studying previously secret internal documents related to British American Tobacco from depositories in Guildford, UK, and Minnesota, USA, which detail the company’s ‘offensive’ strategy towards China. For over a century, BAT has sought to dominate the lucrative Chinese monopoly and tightening restrictions over advertising. Formula One sponsorship has been seen as a valuable means of circumventing such restrictions, gaining exposure in China and, given the global coverage of the event, in other countries where sponsorship is restricted. The documents reveal how the company planned to acquire the media and naming rights for the Formula One Grand Prix of China, while seeking to ‘position an “intermediary” to keep British American Tobacco at arms length from the sport’.

‘China’s signature of the Framework Convention suggested a more sustained attempt to reduce national tobacco consumption, projected to result in 2 million deaths annually by 2020. This weekend’s race does much to dampen such hopes. Although Formula One’s governing body has ensured that motor racing has become a much safer pursuit for its participants, the inauguration of the Chinese Grand Prix confirms the sport’s status as a primary vector of the tobacco pandemic’, conclude the authors.

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