Why the display ban is only the start

Mo Razzaq

Independent retailers must make a final choice this month on how are they going to move forward in the dark market, and the Tobacco Retailers Alliance is on hand to offer advice.

by Mo Razzaq, Scottish spokesperson for the TRA

These are challenging times for independent retailers in Scotland. A whole raft of new legislation affecting the sale of tobacco products is either imminent or actively being considered by Government. Tobacco represents about one third of trade for the average newsagent and anything that restricts shopkeepers’ ability to sell it efficiently, responsibly and conveniently to adult customers is a threat to their business model as a whole.

The display ban for tobacco for smaller shops, excluding bulk tobacconists and specialists, is due to be introduced in a matter of weeks – 6th April 2015.

From this date, retailers selling tobacco will have to cover their shelving units or gantries so that when a customer comes in to the shop, the tobacco cannot be seen – or risk a fine or worse. When asked for a tobacco product, Scottish retailers will be allowed to display an area of no more than 1,000 sq cm. Most retailers believe that the display ban is not based on sound evidence, and could threaten the viability of small shops. However, we now have to get on with it.

The UK Government also intends to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products, despite evidence from Australia (the first country where it has been introduced) that it has failed to tackle under-age smoking and illicit tobacco has increased. The Scottish Government intends to take the same route. The EU is also progressing a revised Tobacco Products Directive which will specify how tobacco products can be made, presented – and, of particular interest to retailers – sold. This is due to come into effect in 2016/17. The EU has voted to ban cigarette packs which contain fewer than 20 cigarettes. It is also proposing a ban on menthol cigarettes and packs of hand rolling tobacco under 30gr and much larger on-pack health warnings. For many, this is plain packaging via the back door.

Time is running out

With time running out, you should now have made suitable arrangements to comply with the new display ban regulations. The actual choice is yours.

The simplest solution is to use a curtain; sliding doors (either fitted to an old gantry or which come as part of a new gantry); displays visible only to the seller (not to the customer) such as overhead shelving facing the seller or below or beside the counter; loose tobacco can be stored in opaque containers. Here are a few pointers:

  • The tobacco on your shelves or gantry must remain out of sight (i.e. sliding doors shut or curtain closed) until you are specifically asked for tobacco
  • When you are asked for tobacco, the size of the area displayed at any one time must be no more than 1000cm2
  • Once you have removed the tobacco from the shelf, the display must be covered again
  • You can continue to store your tobacco accessories (e.g. papers, pipes, lighters, matches) in public view. But do not store them with your tobacco: if a customer asks for some matches, for example, it would be illegal to display any tobacco as you source the matches
  • You can still only sell tobacco to someone 18 or over as before.

The TRA has produced a very helpful Display Ban Guide to be emailed to members in early March and a copy will be featured on the TRA website (membership is free).

I was one of more than a hundred shopkeepers who joined a recent retailer rally to lobby MPs and the Government in London against plain packaging– a measure of how strongly we all feel about it. This was our ‘ last chance saloon’ – one of our last major opportunities to get our case across to the Government and to individual MPs. Plain packaging is not the answer. In Australia levels of illicit tobacco have accelerated whilst smoking rates amongst the young have not fallen.

So it is extraordinary that the Government still wants to plough ahead, having consulted on plain packaging three times and had it rejected three times. All of the leading business and retail organisations have told the Government that plain packaging will fail to curb underage smoking but will inflict huge damage on our shops and high streets.

But the fight is far from over. There are more than 50,000 convenience stores in the UK and 10 million adult smokers and, with an election coming up, politicians need your votes. I urge readers to continue to engage with politicians on plain packaging. It’s your business that would be affected, not least to the cut-price illegal tobacco products that would be even easier to counterfeit. So retailers should remain vigilant. You can report suspicious tobacco sales anonymously to the HMRC hotline number (0800 595 000), to Crimestoppers (0800 555 111) or to the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance (0800 008 282).