Monday night’s rubber-stamping exercise in favour of the Health Bill paves the way for a display ban on tobacco to be enforced on large stores in 2011 and small stores in 2013, and everyone will be worse off as a result.
And I mean everyone, because consumers will be paying for this as well as the trade.
Just like the rest of us, MPs were still in the dark about the precise scale and potential cost of the new regulations until just before they voted. But every store in the UK that has some form of tobacco display – that’s around 70,000 outlets – will have to make an alteration to comply with the ban.
So at a minimum cost of £1,000 per store (in many cases it will be a lot more), that’s at least another £70m that the trade has to find, without taking into account the worrying cost implications from slower transaction times and increased crime that will follow.
And for what gain? If we thought the ban would save lives then I think we would all support it, but I have yet to meet anyone who said they started smoking because they saw a display of products in a shop. And youth smoking rates are already falling in the UK, as they are throughout the western world, regardless of whether there are display restrictions in place or not.
Personally I have never subscribed to the view that thousands of stores will close as a result of a ban, because I believe in the adaptability of independent retailers. But if a dark market for tobacco offers further encouragement for consumers to buy from the illegitimate trade, then no doubt some stores are at risk.
Like all suppliers, tobacco manufacturers have an interest in supporting their customers and I’m sure that this will continue after the ban. But it would be dangerous to assume that it will be in the same form that it is now. With no gantries to maintain, can tobacco companies justify having the same numbers of reps on the road? And if so, what then for the support role that tobacco reps play by distributing useful material such as No ID No Sale packs?
Who pays for enforcement?
In addition to the 70,000 shops with gantries, approximately 90,000 pubs, clubs and hotels sell tobacco without a formal display, and all of these outlets will have to be checked regularly for compliance with the regulations. This will create a huge requirement for more trading standards officers, whose wages, of course, are paid by consumers' council taxes.
No, the ban is unjustified, unreasonable and thoroughly anti-business. In recent years, consumers have benefitted hugely because retail has been getting more efficient. This vote is a backward step. It’s another £50m-£100m that the trade has to find, and that will ultimately have to come from consumers’ pockets, with no discernible consumer benefit.