DOUBT has been cast on proposed laws to ban cigarette advertising. Government lawyers are being instructed to assess the ramifications of a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. The ruling, which adds strength to arguments by the territory's tobacco industry, was that laws which prohibited tobacco advertising and promotion in Canada were unconstitutional and violated the rights of freedom of expression. While the Canadian decision could not be used as a direct precedent in any Hong Kong proceedings, solicitors acting for the Tobacco Institute of Hong Kong have made submissions to the Attorney-General and the Health and Welfare Secretary warning that the Hong Kong reforms would be unlikely to survive if a similar constitutional challenge was mounted. The principal assistant secretary for the Health and Welfare Branch, Derek Gould, said a team of Legal Department lawyers were examining the Canadian decision handed down in Toronto late last month. 'They are examining exactly what in the Canadian Constitution has been violated and seeing whether similar violations would exist here regarding the Bill of Rights,' he said. Hong Kong's Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill, which would prohibit direct advertising on billboards and signs and in newspapers and magazines, is due to be presented to Legco in December. But Mr Gould said it was possible the Bill might not reach Legco until next year as the first draft had been delayed due to 'priorities' in the Legal Department. 'If we need to make amendments when we get the first draft, there may not be time for the Bill to be considered in Legco this year,' he said. The Canadian decision, which ruled on the Tobacco Products Control Act, was the culmination of a seven-year process in which the suit, filed by cigarette manufacturers RJR-Macdonald Inc and Imperial Tobacco Limited, passed through three courts. Central to the decision was the court's assessment that the benefits obtained by a cigarette advertising ban were not of the magnitude to allow an overriding of basic constitutional rights. In the majority opinion, Madam Justice McLachlin said there was 'no direct evidence of a scientific nature showing a causal link between advertising bans and a decrease in tobacco consumption'. 'Freedom of expression, even commercial expression, is an important and fundamental tenet of a free and democratic society,' the court found. Tobacco Institute of Hong Kong chairman Robert Fletcher said he believed the Hong Kong Bill of Rights protected commercial speech in a similar fashion to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a letter to Attorney General Jeremy Mathews, the institute's solicitors, Baker and McKenzie, said it was not the time to be curtailing commercial freedom when there were 'many truly pressing items on the legislative agenda prior to 1997'.