Why Big Tobacco sponsors Formula 1

May 2, 2020


The tobacco industry first used Formula 1 racing as an advertising platform in the late 1960s, keen to associate its tobacco brands with the glamour of the sport and its drivers. It’s only a surprise it took so long, given the promotional opportunities provided by the venues, the vehicles and the race suits. F1 was late to the game, tobacco companies used sports sponsorship from the outset, so they could associate their products with health and wellbeing.

It was only in the 1990s after publication of a UK Government review of the evidence, concluding that advertising had a significant impact on tobacco consumption, that legislation to ban it was put firmly on the political agenda. Formula 1 fought back longest and hardest. In January 1997, Bernie Ecclestone, then Formula One chief, donated £1 million to the Labour Party. The donation became public knowledge in November that year after the Government had announced F1 would be exempt from a ban on tobacco advertising, which had been a key plank of the party’s election manifesto. The scandal forced the Government to drop this exemption. Most forms of tobacco advertising and promotion in the UK were banned under the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002, with a ban on advertising at sporting events coming into effect (under both EU and UK law) in 2005.

As might be expected, the tobacco industry did its best to get round the law. Until mid-2008, Ferrari cars had Marlboro logos in F1 races outside Europe, with footage of these races broadcast back into the EU. White bar codes closely resembling those on Marlboro packs appeared until 2010. Marlboro’s owner Philip Morris International still sponsors Ferrari for about $100m a year, in return gaining access to Ferrari for promotions and hospitality aimed at the tobacco trade and garage forecourt shops. In some countries which allowed advertising imaging on cigarette packs, Marlboro packs were printed with pictures of Ferrari F1 cars.

And now they’re trying a new tactic, using Formula 1 advertising to rebrand themselves as newly minted, hi tech, socially responsible companies, no longer the deceitful, untrustworthy and manipulative pariahs of yesteryear.

In 2018, Ferrari announced “Mission Winnow” sponsorship, while PMI announced its Mission Winnow initiative, aimed at “ensuring that one day all smokers quit cigarettes and switch to better alternatives”. In 2019, Ferrari’s official racing name is Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow as team name. The Victoria State Department of Health, (Victoria is the host state to the Australian Grand Prix) has begun an investigation into whether Mission Winnow is used to promote a tobacco product. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mission Winnow disappeared from the Ferrari name and car before the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, and was then brought back again ahead of the next race in Bahrain. PMI tweeted: We are here to stay, Mission Winnow will remain the title partner of the Scuderia Ferrari team. The changes are currently planned only for Australia.”

BAT is also promoting its products in a similar way, announcing on 11th February this year that its sponsorship of McLaren it will include an “on-car and off-car presence throughout the [F1] season, at all times in line with applicable regulation and legislation”. The McLaren cars will highlight BAT’s “new-to-world and thought-leading “A Better Tomorrow” platform”.

But Big Tobacco’s latest attempt at a corporate makeover won’t, and shouldn’t, succeed in eradicating its association with death and disease. Big Tobacco’s vast profits still come from products which are lethal. Tobacco kills around 7 million people a year, and around 80% of the 1.1 billion smokers worldwide live in low- and middle-income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest, far from the glamour of Formula 1.