As the season ends, recent trends suggest Formula One will be congratulating itself on record global audiences through 2021. Arguably, the sport’s wider impact is not as healthy.
STOP published a report this year that revealed how Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT) are using their sponsorship of the Ferrari and McLaren teams to reach the sport’s growing number of young fans, particularly through social media and e-sports.
This prompted youth advocates, led by International Youth Tobacco Control, to write to Jean Todt, President of the F1’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), asking him to act so youth can enjoy tobacco-free sport, as is the case in every other major global sports series. The former Ferrari Chief Executive’s response echoed one he provided last year to an open letter from more than 100 civil society groups, shifting responsibility to individual countries. Yet Todt never addressed the fact that the sport’s global coverage and online presence can subvert national bans on tobacco advertising and sponsorship.
One change is imminent: a new president of the FIA will be elected on December 17th 2021. Disappointed by Todt’s response, international youth advocates wrote to the two candidates. Both have talked about sustainability and growing global audiences for motorsport during the election campaign, yet neither has addressed the urgent issue of ending tobacco sponsorship.
The resurgence of tobacco’s presence in F1 is a combination of historic failure and more recent inaction. In the early 2000s when most of the world committed to the WHO FCTC, countries (particularly in Europe, where most F1 teams are based) implemented restrictions and bans on tobacco advertising and sponsorship. F1 followed the lead of other global sports and committed to end all tobacco sponsorship and advertising by 2006. And tobacco companies did leave the sport–all but one: Ferrari sponsor PMI. PMI launched “Mission Winnow” in 2018 – a way to gain greater recognition of its F1 sponsorship and once again placed branding on F1 cars. BAT, which once even had its own F1 team, rejoined the sport as a McLaren sponsor in 2019. Tobacco spending has increased from an estimated US$50million in 2018 to an estimated US$105 million in 2021.
The more tobacco companies use F1 to brandish their logos and messaging on and off the racetrack, the greater the potential exposure among F1’s growing young fanbase. While those messages don’t specifically promote cigarette brands, they do promote brands, slogans and messages of two of the world’s biggest cigarette companies and the brands of nicotine and e-cigarette products that are not harm-free, perhaps especially to young bodies. In the USA, Vuse – an R.J. Reynolds e-cigarette brand, first licensed by BAT in 2014 and now owned by the tobacco giant after its acquisition of the American tobacco company in 2017 – is already one of the most popular e-cigarette products among high school students. In 2020, BAT began consolidating its e-cigarettes under one global brand – Vuse.
And research suggests that this type of marketing exposure can lead to more favorable perceptions of these harmful companies among youth, which can increase smoking rates.
Given F1’s global reach, the threat to public health around the world is significant.
Whoever takes over from Todt can’t continue to ignore the problem. F1’s growth and increased global exposure means it is also under greater scrutiny and facing reputational risks on a number of fronts, from its harmful environmental impact to enabling countries with questionable records on human rights records to engage in sportswashing.
In December 2021, the Mercedes F1 team faced criticism for its sponsorship by Kingspan, a company connected with cladding of the Grenfell Tower in London, where a fire claimed 72 lives. Mercedes ended the deal, reported to be worth GB£3million.
Tobacco continues to claim 8 million lives every year. Where is the outcry about Ferrari and McLaren continuing to take tens of millions of dollars, every year, in tobacco sponsorship? Where is the recognition about the potential impact on youth? And where is the accountability from the FIA?
The world is watching. And health advocates stand ready to celebrate an FIA leader who finally takes the necessary steps to protect F1’s young fans and end tobacco sponsorship in the sport for good. It’s time F1 quit its tobacco addiction.
Phil Chamberlain is Managing Editor of Tobacco Tactics, part of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath (UK), a partner in STOP. The author declares no conflict of interest.