Booze and F1

Formula 1 played a key role in the long-running fight over whether or not tobacco companies should be allowed to advertise. F1 took a robust view and there were occasions when countries lost their races, unless they agreed to make allowances for tobacco. The sport did this because of the amounts of money that were being poured into the business. In the end, it became impossible to hold back the tide and tobacco advertising was banned. Public health campaigners have since passed on to other campaigns: against alcohol, against obesity and so on. They claim that their goals are to improve public health, but campaigning is a bit of an industry these days and one suspects that a lot of those who are involved are not entirely pure of thought. Never forget that the lawyers who led the fight against tobacco were paid billions and billions when settlements were finally agreed.

Alcohol is an obvious target for do-gooders and their legal henchmen, but it is not as easy a case as tobacco. It is true that alcohol consumption can do damage, but the nature and severity of the effects of alcohol depend on how much is drunk and on the patterns of the drinking. There has been evidence since the 1920s that alcohol can actually have a beneficial effect on the heart and while anti-alcohol campaigners would like to be able to dismiss this, there is scientific evidence to back it up, although, of course, this is based on very moderate amounts of specific alcohol. The anti-alcohol lobby has, of course, used drink-driving as a weapon to great effect and that has worked in many societies. Alcohol companies have also made efforts to run responsible driving campaigns and to stop under-age drinking, but inevitably the campaigners always seem to write these off as being self-serving. Nonetheless, in many societies drink-driving is no longer the problem it used to be and texting while driving has become more serious an issue.

The problem for the campaigners is that the world likes to drink, with more than two billion people drinking alcohol at some level or other and doing too much will annoy people who simply want to have a drink from time to time, as is their right. The US tried banning alcohol in the 1920s and simply created a serious crime problem, so the anti-alcohol lobby needs to step carefully. They are pushing for health warnings and restrictions on marketing, despite the fact that alcohol consumption per capita has been remaining stable or falling in many countries. The United States, for example, has had the same level of per capita consumption for around 40 years and global consumption has been stable for 25 years. Nonetheless, campaigners have achieved some success with bans in many countries. A number of US cities have bans on alcohol advertising, while Turkey and Russia have recently adopted advertising bans.

The alcohol industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has had to become more creative and so there has been an increase in indirect advertising. TV ads, radio sports and billboards are used less while social media networks and the cinema have become an important means of promotion, with product placement in films and on the Internet. There has been evidence also that the industry is moving towards international sports sponsorships, much as a tobacco did in the 1970s, if only because it has fewer alternatives.

In F1 in recent years we have seen Johnnie Walker joined by Chandon, Smirnoff, Martini and other smaller brands. That trend will probably continue and that means that the sport will likely have to deal more and more with anti-alcohol campaigners. Things are a little different these days because of pay-TV. The problem is not currently a serious one, although it does make life complicated for the FIA President who has made road safety a key element in his presidency.

It remains to be seen whether he will stay on in the role after 2017, or whether he will choose to move on to campaigning in other places. Much will probably depend on whether or not the successor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon agrees to give Todt the same status. This is by no means certain because there is perceived in some quarters to be a clash of interest between the FIA and the road safety lobby. For the moment the identity of the new UN Secretary General remains unclear, there are at least a dozen candidates led by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, António Guterres a former prime minister of Portugal, and various eastern Europeans, this in theory being that region’s turn to take the role. There seems to be an appetite for a woman to take the role, but this does not have to happen. A recent new candidate is Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister. New candidates may include Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, and Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica.