An alliance of big tobacco groups and corner shop trade bodies is barraging ministers with claims that an upcoming ban on the display of cigarettes on store shelves will trigger an upsurge in illicit sales and organised crime, as well as pushing many legitimate small traders out of business.
The desperate lobbying comes ahead of a ban on behind-the-counter displays of tobacco that is slated to come into force for supermarkets in October next year and for smaller stores two years later, but which could yet be shelved by the coalition.
The new rules mark the last in a series of anti-smoking regulations pushed through in recent years by the health lobby with the backing of the Labour government. Other measures include a ban on smoking in public places, an advertising ban and the imposition of more aggressive health warnings on packs.
The industry has fought back, however, launching promotions on social networking sites and at music festivals, and exploiting loopholes in the ban that allow publicity for cigarette papers such as Rizlas. Tobacco bosses have described the wave of regulations as an attack on civil liberties, with little impact on the incidence of smoking.
Industry hopes that ministers may be about to unwind, or soften, the latest shop display rules were given a boost recently when public health minister Anne Milton told the Commons last month: “The government, in discussions across Whitehall, is developing options around the display of tobacco in shops that seek to ensure an appropriate balance between public health priorities and burdens on business.”
While in opposition, leading figures in both coalition parties opposed the ban, which passed onto the statute book a year ago as part of the 2009 Health Act. Suspending the ban timetable would require the measures to go before parliament again, some campaigners believe.
Lobby groups point to a surge in smuggled and counterfeit cigarette sales in Ireland – where new rules forced tobacco products under the counter in the summer of last year – as well as a wave of small shop closures as evidence of the damaging impact of such a ban.
“Ultimately, people don’t even know where to buy tobacco any more,” says Imperial Tobacco chief executive Alison Cooper. “The Irish have this problem. That’s the best evidence.”
Imperial, which makes Britain’s two most smoked cigarette brands, Richmond and Lambert & Butler, as well as the leading rolling tobacco, Golden Virginia, has been lobbying the government with peers Japan Tobacco, British American Tobacco and Philip Morris. Parallel to lobbying efforts, all four are pursuing an application for judicial review of rules banning tobacco displays.
“There is no credible evidence to support the stated public health objective that restricting tobacco displays will reduce youth smoking levels,” says Christopher Ogden, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association.
“We believe, as recent evidence in Ireland proves, that organised crime will exploit the display ban. Concealing tobacco products from view will make it easier for traders of smuggled product to blend it into the legal supply chain… It could encourage some smokers to buy from rogue traders prepared to sell more visible illicit product.”
The lobbyists believe the Department for Business is sympathetic – and is particularly concerned about the impact on small shops – but fear any moves to reverse the scheduled ban will be met with fierce opposition from the Department of Health and the wider medical establishment. Convenience store campaign groups believe No 10 is having to help departments reach a consensus view.
According to the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN), corner shops, which typically operate on slim margins, can rely on tobacco sales for up to a third of their turnover, with shoppers attracted by cigarettes often choosing to make additional impulse purchases. They fear smokers will gravitate to supermarkets if they are unsure whether a newsagent stock tobacco.
As recently as April, the then Conservative shadow health minister said: “My party, if elected, would bring the government’s proposals back before parliament… At the same time as revisiting the ban itself, we would look again at meaningful alternatives to reduce smoking rates, including a ban on proxy purchasing and stronger measures on tobacco smuggling.”
Industry lobbyist nevertheless remain concerned.
“Despite the government’s pre-election pledge to revoke the display ban, we fear a coalition flip-flop and call upon David Cameron and Nick Clegg to deliver on their promises to the small shopkeepers of Britain whose livelihoods are on the line over a measure that will not work,” the NFRN says. Imperial’s Cooper adds: “We are talking to government… but governments don’t always do things that are entirely sensible.”
Imperial claims Ireland has seen a sharp drop in excise duty receipts from cigarettes sales since were forced under the counter more than a year ago – implying a rise in smuggled and counterfeit trade.
Last year an estimated 27% of cigarettes smoked in Ireland were not duty-paid, though the figure in part reflects a rise in cross-border trade with Northern Ireland driven by a weaker pound against the euro.
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