Introducing plain tobacco packs makes no sense, claim the C-Store Champions

C-Store Champions

Arjan Mehr

Londis, Bracknell

While there’s no magic formula to reducing tobacco consumption, Arjan is convinced that educating consumers on the dangers of smoking is much more effective than introducing plain packaging.

Jimmy Dhaliwal

Thorougoods, Warwickshire

Keeping up to date with legislation is a must for all responsible retailers, believes Jimmy. He manages to keep up to speed on the law by paying regular visits to trade body and manufacturer websites.

Malcolm Crump

Spar Compton, Wolverhampton

Maintaining good relations with your local MP is vital in the fight against plain packaging, according to Malcolm. He urges retailers to write to their MPs in order to get their views on plain packaging across.

Guest Champion:

Jeremy Blackburn

JTI head of communications

Jeremy gained extensive industry knowledge by working in sales, and developed a trade communications function within marketing before moving to his current role at tobacco supplier JTI.

What do you think about the government’s plan to put all tobacco products in plain packs?

Arjan: It’s nonsense. The government doesn’t understand the implications of what it is doing. Unless manufacturers come up with a hologram to protect plain packaging, it’s a smuggler’s paradise. I wonder if the government has considered the health issue of people smoking sub-standard cigarettes from China.

Jimmy: It doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think it will affect smoking levels. It will just make serving people slower.

Malcolm: It’s barmy. It won’t stop people smoking like the government expects it to.

Jeremy: With the ink not even dry on the display ban legislation, the government is already looking at introducing further untested and anti-business regulation. This incessant layering of legislation is at odds with the government’s claims that reducing regulation is a priority. The tobacco industry is at the forefront of legislation at the moment, but recent media coverage shows that other categories, which convenience store retailers rely on to maintain a profitable business, are under pressure.


What will happen to the tobacco market if packs go plain?

Arjan: The cornerstone of any Western capitalist country is protection of the brand. Plain packaging means all brands are pretty much null and void. Is the government going to take away these brands without compensation? The government will not be able to reach their objectives. All the experiments in other countries have failed miserably.

Jimmy: A branded cigarette smoker will always stay branded in my opinion, regardless of whether or not the packs are plain. I have a fellow in his late 70s and he has smoked Embassy Filters for the past 15 years. I can’t see him changing. The only people who actually browse the tobacco stand are those after the cheapest product.

Malcolm: People will still be smoking, but the kudos of certain brands will be lost and they may trade down to cheaper brands. This means that our revenue will go down.

Jeremy: Like many other goods, tobacco is offered through a mix of products that provide choice in a range from premium to value. Retailers are dependent on strong product offering in their store in order to compete, maintain footfall and retain customers. The proposals amount to commercial vandalism - reducing consumer choice, reducing brand switching and denying suppliers and retailers any real ability to innovate and compete, other than on price.


How do you think plain packaged tobacco will affect the illicit trade?

Arjan: Some of the badly manufactured and dangerous tobacco from other countries will enter the market, so plain packaging could actually jeopardise the health of smokers. And if any of the illicit tobacco traders are caught, it will cost the government to prosecute them.

Jimmy: It’s going to encourage the black market because fraudsters will find it much easier to forge a plain pack than a branded one. If it gets mixed up with genuine stock, who is to know the difference?

Malcolm: The way we could be forced to trade, having to hide everything with the display ban, combined with plain packs, will look like we’re the ones doing something illegal!

Jeremy: Illicit trade would increase. The transfer of purchases of tobacco products to illegal channels has already hit retailers; this will be the icing on the cake. Plain packaging will make it easier to make fakes, putting money in the pockets of criminals and taking money out of the tills of local shopkeepers.


How do you think plain packaged tobacco will affect your customer service?

Arjan: It’s going to take a ridiculous amount of time to serve the customer. It’s going to be bad for business.

Jimmy: If you always give someone a gold pack of Benson & Hedges and you suddenly give them a plain pack, they won’t understand. It’s going to cause retailers a lot of problems.

Malcolm: It’s going to be difficult. I don’t understand how it will even work to be honest. You won’t be able to show people the display, and all the packs will look similar, so you could end up giving someone the wrong product!

Jeremy: Plain packaging will slow service times, affect customer service and make stock management harder.


How big a role do you think tobacco packaging plays in whether or not a person buys a product?

Arjan: It does play a role because people identify the taste, brand and quality associated with a particular pack. The minute everything looks the same, people will have to re-learn how to buy cigarettes. I think they’ll smoke just as much, but not necessarily the same brand.

Jimmy: Smoking is a habit, so I don’t think it will discourage people. I’m an ex-smoker so I know - if someone says they’re gasping for a cigarette that urge isn’t just going to go away because they can’t see a product’s branding.

Malcolm: It makes a big difference to which brand they choose, but not to them actually smoking. I’d be worried if I was a premium brand manufacturer as it’s all about image with that kind of product.


Do you think that plain packaging will stop people taking up smoking?

Arjan: People will still take up smoking. Illicit drugs like ganja and hashish aren’t branded, but they are still smoked.

Jimmy: I guess it depends on the individual, but I can’t imagine it will make a blind bit of difference with the younger generation.

Malcolm: If anything, it might make cigarettes more appealing because there is such an effort into going into hiding them away.

Jeremy: There is a complete absence of credible evidence to demonstrate that plain packaging will lead to a reduction in youth smoking.


What alternatives to plain packaging could be put in place to reduce smoking levels and stop people taking up smoking?

Arjan: There is no silver bullet. The government needs to teach people that smoking leads to cancer and advertise that it isn’t fashionable, or a good idea.

Jimmy: There isn’t enough media coverage showing the damage that cigarettes can do. It’s mainly just on packs. There needs to be more in terms of shock education, such as showing people a set of normal lungs versus a smoker’s. These campaigns need to be introduced at primary school level so that kids grow up with it. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Malcolm: Education is the only way. Packs already say ‘smoking kills’, but people continue to buy them. Once people have the facts, then it’s up to the individual to make a choice.

Jeremy: There is a range of better solutions to address the government’s goals, including the implementation of access prevention measures for children - such as enforcing a No ID No Sale culture; making it a criminal offence for them to buy cigarettes, or for others to buy cigarettes on their behalf (proxy purchasing); and further addressing tobacco smuggling.


Which is worse: plain packaging or the display ban?

Arjan: Plain packaging is going to be even worse than the display ban. If plain packaging comes in, it will take even longer to identify a product. It may be the case that retailers reduce the number of SKUs, so that they just have 10 or 15 lines in packs of 20.

Jimmy: Plain packaging is worse from a speed-of-service point of view. At least with the display ban, you can see the brands once you’ve opened the gantry.

Malcolm: I can’t favour one over the other - neither is good!


How can retailers ensure that their views on plain packaging are heard?

Arjan: The problem is that the newspapers are not giving us a lot of column inches, so we only have the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) and other trade bodies to tell the government how we feel. We’re not against reducing tobacco consumption. It is how the government is going about it that’s wrong.

Jimmy: Retailers can get in touch with the ACS and see what is being done. I’d love to have a forum with the government so that we can put our views across. Retailers need to have a big, big voice - it’s not just c-stores that are affected by plain packs, it’s the multiples and forecourts too.

Malcolm: They need to write to their MPs, lobby and complain in order to get their voices heard.

Jeremy: Tell your MP - visit, call, email, or write to your MP to tell them how this would impact your business. To find out who your MP is visit, or telephone 020 721 93000. Respond to the government’s consultation and spread the word - inform others in the trade about what’s going on and the negative impact that this could have on their business.


Where do you go to find the most up- to-date advice on tobacco legislation?

Arjan: The ACS website tends to be more up-to-date than anyone else as they deal with the government all the time. Symbol groups should also be able to give advice.

Jimmy: I religiously check websites run by JTI and Imperial Tobacco, as well as the ACS site. You can’t afford to be unprepared when it comes to tobacco legislation.

Malcolm: Trade magazines and the tobacco companies. I’ve just had a leaflet through from British American Tobacco, and someone from JTI visited the store recently.

Jeremy: JTI has created a responsible tobacco retailing website. Go to