As a non-smoking believer in freedom, I believe that Andrew Lansley’s introduction of a tobacco display ban is a prime example of gesture politics of the worst kind and a triumph for the nanny state. Not only is the decision a U-turn on both the Conservative and Liberal Democrats' pre-election commitments, but it is also completely at odds with David Cameron’s ‘war’ on bureaucracy and a betrayal of small businesses at a time of economic hardship.
There can only be two winners in this sorry saga; the Labour Party (who introduced the policy during the previous Parliament) and the anti-smoking zealots. In fact, ASH and SmokeFree each receive a large amount of government funding, despite being a charity. In 2009 the Department of Health gave Ash £191,000 for a report called “Beyond Smoking Kills”. This was on top of a direct grant from the Department of Health to the tune of £142,000. As a result, the Government seem reluctant to look at other evidence-based analysis before deciding on the direction of public policy.
In fact, the entire policy is founded on a misunderstanding. The decision is based on a desire to reduce the number of smokers, particularly among the younger generation who, it is claimed, are more tempted to purchase tobacco products if they are on display. This argument is fatally flawed as smoking is not an impulse purchase. Cigarettes are not like cream cakes. People are not tempted, upon seeing a cigarette packet that they would like to smoke. It is already illegal to sell cigarettes to people under the age of 18 and so if this is not being followed, the Government should get to grips with this rather than introducing new regulations.
In addition, Dr Patrick Basham’s (an independent academic) report, ‘Canada’s ruinous display ban’ highlighted that in Canada, there was a rise in teenage smoking as a result of the ban; in Nova Scotia youth consumption increased by 15%. Interestingly, the Canadian Department of Health’s consultation on the future of tobacco control concluded: “Evidence from teenage smoking in Canada is largely inconclusive with increases in youth (and overall) smoking in some areas and decreases in others.”
Similarly in Iceland, the ban had no independent effect on smoking prevalence of 15-19 year olds. During 2001, when the display ban came into effect, smoking prevalence increased by 3.1% from 14.4% to 17.5%, in fact the highest it had been for 5 years. This is understandable because as tobacco products become more elusive they are viewed as a forbidden fruit.
It is surprising therefore that the party which was committed to evidence-based decision-making in opposition has over-looked this over-whelming evidence against the introduction of a tobacco display ban. In answer to a parliamentary question, Mike Penning, then Shadow Health Minister said, “I have looked long and hard for evidence from around the world that the Government’s proposals (to ban displays at the point of sale) are sufficiently evidence-based, but I do not think that they are.” Why the sudden change of heart? It is simply to try to appease anti-smoking fanatics who can never be appeased.
Furthermore, the cost implications of this policy are crippling for small retailers. It was estimated by the UK Government that it will cost the average shopkeeper £1,000 to refit their premises. A small shop will therefore need to generate £20,000 more in sales to offset this cost. Extrapolated across the UK, this legislation will force small shops to pay £33 million to implement this measure. Supermarkets will be able to absorb the costs of such a measure as a larger proportion of their revenue is made from non-tobacco products.
In 2007, 53% of total cigarette sales were in corner shops, which represents almost a third of their revenue. International comparisons should send alarm bells ringing for the UK Government. In Canada, 15% of all small retailers (2,300 corner shops or almost 1 out of every 7 shops) were forced to close down as a result of the smoking display ban. Figures from PriceWaterhouseCoopers suggest that if this was replicated across the UK, it would result in 10,500 small retail shops going out of business. This would be a devastating legacy for the Coalition Government to leave in its wake as corner shops are a significant part of many small communities and the life-blood of the British economy.
Mr Singh, president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents called the decision “a heavy-handed regulation disproportionately hurting small shops” and said that the announcement to delay the implementation of the ban was “little more than a stay of execution for small businesses and fails to address any of the arguments that retailers have put to their MPs and Ministers.”
It is also feared that the policy will encourage the trading of contraband tobacco products which in turn leads to increased gang and criminal activity. Again if we look at the experience of Canada, which introduced a tobacco display ban in 2002, the statistics are alarming. Illegal tobacco sales cost stores more than $2.5 billion (Canadian dollars) in annual sales ($260 million in profit) in 2009. Also, a study by the Canadian Convenience Store Association found that 61% of smokers in the province of Ontario and 75% of smokers aged 18-24 smoked illicit tobacco products. The UK should not be legislating to encourage such activity.
This legislation is attempting to make tobacco illegal in all but name, damage retailers’ ability to compete at a time of economic hardship and seeking an unproven outcome. Tobacco is a legal product and should therefore be displayed and advertised the same as other legal products. The Government should listen to the British public, who, opinion polls show, are overwhelmingly against a display ban (80%), and accept the principle of individual responsibility and allow the consumer to make their own choice and decide how to spend their own money. Alternative measures such as making proxy purchasing illegal; making the attempted purchase of tobacco by minors illegal and tackling the counterfeit tobacco market would be more productive, beneficial and widely-supported.
There are many products that are bad for us if taken to excess, including alcohol and fatty foods. Is the Government going to ban these products from display as well? It is difficult to stomach seeing the nanny state alive and well with a so-called Conservative Secretary of State for Health – in fact, can anyone spot the difference between this Government and the last lot?