Newsagents call on Cable to think again on tobacco display ban

An open letter to Vince Cable from the National President of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents:

Dear Mr Cable,

The National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN) would like to express the views of Britain’s small businesses, those at the heart of their local communities, in response to the UK’s proposed tobacco display ban. We do so with the firm support of over 60 backbench MPs who have called on you personally to look again at the proposed ban, as well as 33,000 small family businesses across every town and village in the UK.

These MPs who have signed the open letter understand that the display ban is not a health vs business issue: independent evidence demonstrates it does not work on health grounds and it disproportionately impacts small businesses. It therefore fails both tests of making effective and evidence based legislation.

A report in the Irish Times on 17 December 2010 stated that the number of people smoking has actually risen despite the ban. International evidence, including data released from Pennsylvania State University, suggests a display ban would be completely ineffective or even counter-productive; while countries that have previously implemented a display ban (including Canada, Ireland and Iceland) have reported widespread closures  A report in the Institute for Economic Affairs predicts a similar scenario in Britain. More recently, Sweden and Denmark have rejected display bans for these very reasons, as well as the fear of encouraging further illicit trade.

The great British public has common sense and in a recent poll undertaken by Populus, 80% of the general public does not believe in the display ban measure and would not oppose its withdrawal.

Introduced by the previous Labour administration, the display ban was fiercely and actively opposed by Liberal Democrats (and Conservatives). Opposition MPs overwhelmingly voted against the display ban in a free vote.

Despite no impact assessment being undertaken on what it would cost Britain’s retailers, it was forced through under a three line whip.

An impact assessment would have shown that these regulations disproportionately affect the small independent retailer. Figures in Ireland prove this – small independents saw a decrease in tobacco sales four times larger than multiples.

This legislation is forcing 33,000 small shops that sell tobacco across the UK to collectively pay at least £33m to implement a measure that will not work.

Instead, the government and local communities should consider alternative means of restricting youth access to tobacco that work.

As responsible retailers, Britain’s shops support measures to reduce levels of youth smoking and do not sell tobacco to minors. The best way to reduce juvenile smoking is to make illegal the purchase, or attempted purchase of tobacco by minors, as well as proxy purchasing by adults on behalf of minors. For example, proxy purchasing of alcohol is illegal. The other effective way to reduce juvenile smoking is a commitment to crack down on smuggled and illicit tobacco. Sellers of illegal tobacco do not obey age restrictions.

Britain is a nation of shopkeepers and our coalition government should support them at a difficult time rather than burdening them. The NFRN wants the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government at large to honour their pre-election pledge and revoke the ban. The Liberal Democrat party made pre-election commitments to reverse or revise the display ban on the basis of the impact it will have on small shops and the lack of evidence in support of the measure.

Parminder Singh, National President, National Federation of Retail Newsagents

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  • Vince Cable is becoming more and more incompetent since holding an executive position. It’s often the way: those who make their names as critics often prove to be hopeless once the tables are turned.

  • I can’t help but think that a letter from a self interested group like this can’t be balanced or fair. If removing tobacco from display has no effect on sales, why would shop keepers be worried? I imagine that they’re worried about loss of sales, which is the whole point of anti-tobacco actions like this.

  • While I appreciate the concern about loss of business for small retailers at a disproportionate level compared with supermarkets, I fail to see how such a ban can be demonstrated to be ineffective. The piece notes that in Ireland, “small independents saw a decrease in tobacco sales four times larger than multiples”. This infers that tobacco sales decreased from all outlets, but that the drop was larger for independents. If there is a drop in tobacco sales, then by definition there is a drop in the amount of tobacco out there, and thus a reduction in smoking, unless people are grey importing it or growing it in indoor tobacco factories.

    There is no doubt that reductions in smoking improve public health in general and may significantly reduce the cost to the NHS of care for people with smoking-related disorders. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of farming policy and offer retail businesses a temporary, gradually-reducing subsidy for not selling tobacco at all, making the subsidy level inversely proportional to the total retail floor area so that smaller businesses have an incentive to give it up. This subsidy could be funded with NHS savings as a result of lower overall tobacco use. Or, of course, it could be funded from tax income created as a result of legalising other, less-dangerous recreational drugs.

  • @Colin Green

    “An impact assessment would have shown that these regulations disproportionately affect the small independent retailer. “

    Did you read it?

  • Richard ..I have been very citical about some of Vinces actions … but from the initial posting it seems he hasn’t done anything either way ?

    If you critisise for the sake of it you will make your aruments sound shallow .

  • @Richard E

    Why not just ban alcohol and tobacco?

    There is no doubt it would improve public health and may significantly reduce the cost to the NHS.

  • Absolutely agree with Mr Singh. But I would go further. The Lib Dem Cons should repeal the ban on smoking in pubs, clubs etc and allow individual owners of such premises to effect a compromise which would allow smokers to smoke in hived off rooms with effective ventilation and smoke extraction. Alternatively, allow publicans to decide whether they want their pub to be smoking or non-smoking and designate it so with a special sign. The present law is an appalling abuse of civil liberties. Smoking is not an illegal activity and is also very expensive for purchasers. The treasury receives millions of pounds from smokers for which they get nothing in return except abuse and harrassment. If governments insist on victimising people who smoke and have an objective of stopping people smoking altogether, they should take their argument to its logical conclusion and make smoking tobacco illegal. No wonder three pubs a week are closing. Why should I go to a pub and be expected to stand outside in this freezing weather just because I enjoy a fag with my pint of beer? No thanks. I’d rather stay at home in the warm where I can drink and smoke without catching frostbite. Many smokers have taken this view, which is why so many publicans, especially those in rural areas, are going bankrupt.

  • This letter provides no citations supporting its case. This CR UK blog supporting bans on displays does.

    If this writers of this letter wish to be taken seriously from an evidence based point of view then then have to reference their claims and present arguments showing why counter claims are wrong.

    May I suggest that their self interest in tobacco sales is overriding their appreciation of the benefits to society in reducing levels of smoking.

  • Paul Kennedy 19th Dec '10 - 12:45pm

    As a parent, I’d be delighted if it is right that the display ban is having a disproportionate impact on newsagents which is where a disproportionate proportion of under-age retail sales are undoubtedly occurring.

    But I’m shocked to discover we had pledged to remove the display ban on a substance that is so toxic and addictive that if we were starting now it would surely be available only on prescription.

    There are lots of other measures we can take to level the playing field between newsagents, pubs and supermarkets without promoting smoking.

    As for the pub ban, I remember the good old days when we had to sit with, and inhale the smoke of, a handful of selfish addicts because all the non-smoking areas (if there were any) were full. Never again!

  • coldcomfort 19th Dec '10 - 3:25pm

    Why not ban breathing? If all of what is laughingly called Homo Sapiens were dead there might be hope for the rest of the planet

  • ‘Newsagents are merchants of cancer and other unpleasant often fatal diseases,’

    The problem with the health fascists is that they are selective about what they wish to bear down on. Yes: newsagents do sell things which are bad for people, such as chocolate and other sweet products which rot children’s teeth, and produce obesity and diabetes which can be fatal; some newsagents also sell alcohol which is just as fatal as cigarettes. Car showrooms sell cars which kill people; sports shops sell mountaineering equipment and diving equipment which kills people too; yet it is people who smoke cigarettes who get persecuted. Life’s a risk in every department. To avoid risks we’d have to ban everything. All that Mr Singh is asking is for a little compromise. What’s wrong with that? After all, Liberal Democrats are always exhorting the joys of compromise through coalition. Or is that another huge lie?

  • MacK, I think what separates tobacco from all of the others is that

    1) there is no safe dose

    2) smoking in a closed environment is an unavoidable health risk to other people in the same place

    With respect to debates about freedom, the only things under attack here are the freedom of tobacco companies to advertise and shopkeepers to profit from this. These surely are issues about the balance between the freedoms enjoyed by commerce and the harm it can do to society. Individual liberties are not invoked.

  • Colin Green 19th Dec '10 - 5:54pm


    “some newsagents also sell alcohol which is just as fatal as cigarettes”

    What? Alcohol is nowhere nears as fatal as cigarettes. I’d like you to show me some evidence that alcohol is so fatal.

    As has been said above, there is no safe dose of smoke, whereas chocolate, crisps and alcohol are quite safe in moderate quantities. Whilst obesity can of course be fatal, 1 in 2 chocolate eaters don’t die of chocolate related disease.

  • The open letter states: ‘A report in the Irish Times on 17 December 2010 stated that the number of people smoking has actually risen despite the ban.’

    Possibly the state of the economy in Ireland will see a lot of former smokers returning to the weed for comfort.

    Still hadn’t realised this was another u-turn by the LibDems and Tories – policies going up in moke 🙂

    I alway remember the first person close to me that died from lung cancer – my father in law – and it was a horrific death as he slowly ‘drowned’ as his lungs filled with sputum. I have never smoked but I knew then that if I had I would have chucked it immediately.

    As to the display ban I just don’t have the information to make an informed assessment of its effectiveness and I tend to feel this is something that can only be determined after the ban comes into place – but we’ve got to remember the ban is designed to cut the numbers smoking and, in particular, younger people starting.

    As far those who make the argument that to ban all risk we would have to ban everything – well that’s a nonsense. The difference with cigs is that there is no safe threshold and this was hidden for decades by the tobacco industry and their tame medical experts who produced ‘scientific’ studies proving that cigs were good for your health.

    And I am sure that as time passes, experts will establish that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. An interesting debate on individual liberty v the public need to cut NHS expenditure coming up I reckon.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Dec '10 - 6:35pm

    “1 in 2 chocolate eaters don’t die of chocolate related disease.” — no, surely it’s more than that? 😀

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Dec '10 - 6:41pm

    “An interesting debate on individual liberty v the public need to cut NHS expenditure coming up I reckon.”

    Almost certainly a red herring. Yes, smokers may cost the NHS more money than non-smokers over the course of their lives (though it’s far from a certainty: increasingly, those who live longest — which doesn’t include most smokers, of course — become very expensive in later life as chronic conditions are managed with medication and therapy, before spending a long time dying very expensively), but when you factor in their contribution to taxes and to pensions which they either die too young to ever draw or at least receive for far fewer years than non-smokers, it’s very unlikely that smokers cost more to the public purse over all. (I’m sure someone’s tried to quantify this at some time?)

    By the way, I’m in favour of the advertising ban, would extend it to alcohol too. I just don’t think it would save the state any money.

  • I’m sorry but this is absolute b*llocks. We fiercely opposed this same measure when proposed by Labour and we were right to do so. If a small newsagent is responsible in not selling tobacco products to minors, they shouldn’t have to hide away their tobacco products like some dirty little secret.

  • Nobody is “in favour of smoking” (except maybe the tobacco companies). I’ve this strange faith in people to make decisions for themselves.

  • David Evans 19th Dec '10 - 8:38pm

    Less tobacco sales —> less lung disease etc —> very good
    less passive smoking —> very good
    closure of smaller shops —> reduction of local services —> bad
    less interaction for some elderly if local shops close —> bad
    increase in power of supermarkets —> bad
    loss of jobs (in third world or UK) —> bad
    third world farmers go into growing food –> good
    third world farmers go into growing drugs and fall under the influelce of criminal gangs —> bad
    ban on display —> loss of liberty? —> ???

    These are just a few of the issues. I wish it was straightforward, but it isn’t. I wonder how many of these have been considered properly, before the decision is finalised?

  • Kevin Jones 19th Dec '10 - 8:50pm

    Odd views from the party whose conference believes in legalising pot smoking. Dying from the carcinogens of unfiltered tobacco and pot is ok is it ?

  • Darren Reynolds 19th Dec '10 - 9:56pm

    Hold firm, Vince.

  • Darren Reynolds 19th Dec '10 - 10:01pm

    @David Evans, it’s good to see a balanced argument, though I suggest that if assassination is made illegal, it’s bad for assassins, and the reverse is also true. Would that be a reason to legalise assassination?

    @Kevin Jones, I suspect that if Lib Dems were in power and regulated drug use, the availability of cannabis would not be comparable to tobacco today. You would not see it prominently displayed in corner shops. Tobacco, which is at least as harmful, should not be displayed that way either, in my view. Some drugs are best used ceremonially and with great reverence. Trivialising their availability diminishes the value and leads to societal harm.

  • @Darren Reynolds

    Interesting point, but I would hope the “considered properly” aspect would come in here – bit of a balancing act liberalism. Assassinate who (or is it whom?) might also come into it as well!!

  • Nobodies individual liberty is being affected by this ban, if people want to smoke they still can and tobacco will still readily available for them to smoke. All that is happening is stopping any subtle advertising influence seeing the cigarette packets may have especially on younger people.

    The question is whether the ban is worth the cost to shops (both one off costs of refurbishments and ongoing loss of sales) and the apparent disproportionate affect this has on smaller shops.

  • Personally I am all for the ban, and I was also one of those that welcomed the smoking ban – as an asthmatic who ended up in hospital several times due to passive smoke whilst working in pubs, I just wih it had been sooner.
    As for the display of cigarettes – it won’t stop anyone tha really wants to smoke from buying them, it just means that it is less likely to be an impulse buy (particularly for ex-smokers) or a temptation for young people.

    That said, I would like to see an independent report done into whether a ban on display would be effective or not. After all, most of us are biased one way or another, and we wouldn’t advocate the legalisation or criminalisation of other drugs without a similar process. I suspect the answer would support a ban, but you never know, and is it worth the risk that it would make tobacco more appealing?

  • @ Colin Green

    “What? Alcohol is nowhere nears as fatal as cigarettes. I’d like you to show me some evidence that alcohol is so fatal.”

    I wasn’t suggesting that there was an equivalence between the number of deaths from alcohol and the number of smoking elated diseases. Because of the huge variables involved comparisons are very difficult but in 2008 35,261 apparently died of lung cancer and 9,031 of alcohol related diseases. (A proportion of those who died of lung cancer weren’t actually smokers) But there is no doubt that alcohol taken recklessly, or abused, will kill. Like most things. So in that respect acohol is as fatal as smoking for an individual if abused. Please understand me, I don’t wish to inflict my smoke on anyone, and I certainly don’t wish to encourage children to take up smoking. I just want people to acknowledge that politicians are being ultra hypocritical over this. They are willing to take the huge revenues derived from taxes on smoking but want to be free of the guilt of doing so. They should have the guts to ban it altogether rather than say that it is legal and then produce draconian restrictions on smokers that turn them into pariahs. But the most sensible course is to accept that smoking is a nasty habit and allow for specially designated public smoking areas. Selling fags in blank packets will only increase their clandestine, sub culture appeal. In this respect Vince Cable (and the Labour people before him) are behaving like those concerned Victorians who covered up table legs to stop them causing offence.

  • I do think the restrictions on tobacco now risk going too far – and I say this as a lifelong non-smoker.

    There cannot be anyone who doesn’t know and who isn’t constantly reminded that smoking tobacco is a serious health risk. Added to that, the restrictions on smoking in enclosed public places mean that non-smokers are no longer exposed to others’ smoke. Added to that, the taxes collected on tobacco cover, several times over, the cost of treating the related health problems.

    We should draw the line, and say that’s enough. We’ve taken sufficient action to stop smokers inflicting health or financial costs on non-smokers, plus we have educated people to make informed choices. Government need not extend any further into this.

  • The proposal may not sound that big a deal, but if it makes it more dififcult for the tobacco industry to peddle its filthy drug to children, then give it a try.

    A useful rule of thumb:- If the tobacco industry says X, do Y.

  • @neil – maybe he should just stop selling cigarettes; he’s not required by law to do so
    @sesenco – tobacco companies are legal; if people want to ban cigarettes they should come out, say so and make that argument

  • john mcclurey 21st Dec '10 - 11:41am

    As a newsagent and a member of the NFRN for the past 30 years and a Councillor in Gateshead for the past 3 years could I please bring some light to this debate? As a retailer I sell in excess of £5,000 worth of cigarettes per week and I do not believe the proposed display ban will be the death of my business.

    I have seen first hand what has happened in Ireland, I visited there last year and spoke to many retailers about their experiences and, without exception, they were positive. Many retailers have adapted their businesses to make the most of new opportunities whilst continuing to sell cigarettes to their customers as normal. The removal of displays is part of a raft of measures being put into place with the aim of de-normalising smoking, making smoking even less attractive for youngsters. It is not a silver bullet, just part of a jigsaw.

    As a retailer I have tried to take a wider view of the debate and my view is that on one side we have the Cigarette Manufacturers, in the form of the Tobacco Manufacturers Alliance, pulling all the strings they can, including the organisation they fund, the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, to maintain the status quo. On the other side we have a collection of organisations including, ASH, Smokefree, BHF, and Cancer Research UK, who are working together with the aim of improving the health of our population. I make no apologies for backing the health lobby. I sleep easily knowing on which side of the fence I stand.

    Our businesses will adapt to the new regulations and yes we may have to spend some money to comply. A recent survey by the Association of Convience Stores indicated that, when retailers had to spend their own money to comply with the law, the average cost was £300. A small price to pay if only one child does not start to smoke.

    Smoking rates in this country are on the decrease yet we need to keep up the pressure. In the long term perhaps retailers will sell more birthday cards and hold onto their stocks of sympathy cards till years later.

    I have included some links at the end of this submission, these will give anyone who cares to look a factual view of the data surrounding this debate rather than an article from a newspaper quoting figures from 2007.

    In trying to muddy the waters of this debate constant reference is made to the issue of smuggled and counterfeit tobacco. This is a separate debate and needs to continue to be addressed by the relevant government departments.

    The claim that the number of people smoking since the Irish display ban is false. The survey referred to in the Irish Times was made in 2007, two years before the ban came in. In truth rates of smoking in Ireland are the lowest ever and are reported on the website of the Irish Office of Tobacco Control

    There is no evidence that point of sales bans have increased tobacco smuggling or particularly disadvantaged small shops.

    The balance of international evidence supports the introduction of point of sale display bans and is supported by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

  • Stuart,

    It is possible to believe that a product should remain legal while also holding that its supply and use should be restricted.

    Ergo, I am opposed to a blanket prohibition on tobacco misuse, and the sale of tobacco products, but nonetheless support the banning of tobacco misuse in all public places and in the presence of children anwyhere, and believe that sales should be under-the-counter only, that packaging should be plain (and carry pictures of decayed lung-tissue), etc.

  • Cllr Sue Anderson 23rd Dec '10 - 1:07pm

    I chair the Tobacco Control Alliance in Birmingham.
    1.The legislation fits in with the Governmaents commitment” to create a framework which empowers people to make the changes that will really make a difference in their lives” Andrew Lansley.
    2. independent peer review evaluation shows putting tobacco displays out of sight in shops has been effective in Ireland and shops have not been put out of business.
    3. A report for the Association of Convenience Stores that shops had to pay on average £300 to adapt their displays
    4. A poll by You Gov for Cancer Research UK found 73% of the public backed the legislation to keep tobacco out of sight in shops to protect children
    5. Not all newsgaents are against the proposals and may prefer not to promote cigaretes to children.

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