Retailers are warning that the looming ban on cigarette displays will create a boom in black market tobacco and may prove the final straw for thousands of struggling small shops.
The proposed legislation, which returns to Parliament on October 12, is part of a Government drive to deter young people from smoking.
The new curbs are expected to come into force in supermarkets from 2011 and in small shops from 2013. But convenience store groups say the Government has misled Parliament over the cost to retailers of removing cigarettes from sight.
Black market: Cigarette displays have long been a feature of convenience stores and their absence could create an underground market, retailers say
A similar ban in Canada has been blamed by retailers for the closure of many convenience stores. It is also said to have fuelled a growing market in contraband cigarettes.
Dave Bryans, president of the Canadian Convenience Store Association, said: ‘This will break the back of small retailers in the UK.
‘The Canadian Government ignored the possibility that the display ban would drive many people towards illegal sources for tobacco and now we have a contraband epidemic. Our research has found that 52 per cent of the cigarettes sold in this country are now illegally imported and they are being sold openly in schools.’
Plans to ban tobacco displays in the UK have been supported in the House of Lords. But Lord Borrie, a former director general of the Office of Fair Trading, has spoken out against the proposal, saying it is anti-competitive and ignores the rights of small retailers to sell legal products.
Many opponents of the ban also dispute claims that the curbs would do anything to reduce smoking levels.
A Government spokesman said: ‘There is no evidence from countries that have already removed cigarette displays that this has increased illicit trade.
‘Subject to the Health Bill being passed in Parliament, removing cigarette displays will not stop adult smokers buying their cigarettes from exactly the same shops as they do now.
‘It is hard to imagine why the law-abiding majority of smokers would go to the trouble of seeking out new sources and suppliers of cigarettes when the corner shop or supermarket will continue to sell them, just as they do now.’
But James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said: ‘Small stores are already coping with a raft of new laws and regulations which make it increasingly difficult for them to stay in business.
‘We have had rises in the minimum wage, increases in the amount of paid holiday that must be given to staff, rising business rates and various changes to alcohol legislation. All of it means increased costs and disruption to the retailers.’
Nigel Dowdney, a 54-year-old former smoker who runs two convenience stores in Norwich, said the attempt to ban tobacco displays was symptomatic of the Government’s lack of support for small businesses.
He said: ‘Whenever they want to do something unpopular they deflect the attention on to small businesses.
‘They did the same with charging for carrier bags, which they essentially left up to us. There is no evidence that this draconian law is going to make any difference to smoking rates, but it is going to badly affect me and other small shopkeepers.
‘I’m the third generation in my family to run a corner shop, but I don’t see any more generations rushing to replace me when it is this hard to do business.’
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