One month ago, I wrote about why the Government should reject Tobacco Retailer Licencing (TRL) – a putative bid to crack down on black market smokes which would in fact heavily penalise legitimate retailers, especially small shops.
Small businesses are less able than their larger competitors to absorb the costs and uncertainty involved in a new regulatory regime. They are also far more dependent on tobacco revenue than supermarkets.
The extent of that dependency has been highlighted by a new survey by Tobacco Retailers Alliance, according to which 68 per cent of local retailers derive more than 20 per cent of their total revenue from tobacco; 31 per cent more than 30 per cent of their revenue; and 15 per cent over 40 per cent of their revenue.
These figures do not include smokers’ additional spend, much of which would be lost if smokers had to buy tobacco elsewhere – according to Retail Newsagent magazine 39 per cent of visits to convenience stores is tobacco-driven, and the average revenue contribution of a smoking shopper is double that of their non-smoking counterparts.
As I wrote last time: “If you need to go to a town centre or out-of-town complex for your cigarettes, chances are you’ll do the rest of your shopping whilst you’re there.”
As a result of these findings, no fewer than 98 per cent of local retailers surveyed see a potential loss of tobacco sale rights as a threat to their business, and 87 per cent believe that losing the right to sell tobacco would force them to close their shop.
Of course, business is only one part of a broader set of considerations the Government must weigh when passing new legislation.
Yet it would surely be foolish to disregard the voices of those who find themselves at the front line of the struggle with black market tobacco products – not least because the entire British legislative system is designed around the model of each side making its case as best it can so that the Cabinet can make the best decision possible.
Yet Anna Soubry, the Small Business Minister, declined in February to meet the TRA to discuss their concerns.
It’s hard to see a good reason for this: meeting a trade body which represents tens of thousands of small businesses is surely pretty fundamental to the job of a ‘Small Business Minister’. Apparently tobacco retailers plan to seek a meeting today or, failing that, picket her office.
Soubry’s reluctance to engage with tobacco sellers might have its roots in her year as Public Health minister, in which she was an enthusiastic champion of all manner of anti-smoking measures including plain packaging and ‘Minimum Tobacco Pack Sizes’ (MTPS), the EU’s incoming ban on ten packs of cigarettes.
But when ministers move they ought to leave such baggage at the door of their new office. It is the Department of Health’s job to present the case for further tobacco controls, and the Department of Business’ (BIS) to represent those who might be adversely affected.
After getting needlessly blind-sided by the problems of Port Talbot steelworks and BHS, BIS is not giving the impression of a department in command of its brief. Its ministers should be bending over backwards to combat that impression, rather than allowing ideological cross-contamination from other departments to stop them doing their job.