Belfast Telegraph

The unseen problem with new law on tobacco sales

Smoking kills 2,300 people here every year. But is forcing cigarettes under the counter really the solution, asks Donald C McFetridge

Tobacco advertising was officially banned in the UK in 2003 and, on April 6, legislation was introduced in England that goes further and bans the display of cigarette and tobacco products at the point of sale in large stores.

Small retailers - classified as those with floor space less than 280 square metres - have until April 6, 2015 to comply with the regulations. And it looks more than likely that, before the end of this year, retailers in Northern Ireland will have to comply with similar legislation.

One of the principal reasons for the introduction of the legislation is that tobacco displays attract new young smokers, with around two-thirds starting before the age of 18. Research shows that every year 340,000 children under 16 try cigarettes for the first time.

By banning the display of cigarettes at the point of sale, it is hoped the attraction of smoking will be reduced. But is it really as simple as 'out of sight, out of mind'?

It has been demonstrated that tobacco displays can prompt impulse purchasing decisions and increase sales by an estimated 12-28%, with young people particularly likely to make these unplanned purchases.

This is probably one of the reasons why a recent survey by Cancer Research UK flagged up that 73% of the public support the legislation for the removal of point of sale tobacco and cigarette displays.

Marks -amp; Spencer famously - in response to parental concerns - removed confectionery from the point of sale, only to re-instate their displays when they realised how much revenue they were forfeiting.

It stands to sense that retailers of all sizes will lose out on potential profits, but it will most adversely affect independent retailers and CTNs (confectioners, tobacconists and newsagents), who rely much more on sales of tobacco products. Yet another blow for the independents. The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association has stated that its " ... members are responsible community retailers, who recognise that they have a part to play in addressing the problem of smoking" and has called for the Executive to provide retailers with " ... a longer and flexible lead-in time to make these costly changes easier to implement". Not an unreasonable request, given the 2015 deadline for small retailers in England.

However, while the cost of implementing these changes is estimated at over £40m, they have got to be weighed against the fact that, in Northern Ireland, where it is estimated that 24% of the population smoke, smoking kills almost 2,300 people every year.

The 'opportunity cost', in terms of loss of potential sales through impulse purchasing, is difficult to measure, but it doesn't stop there.

The tobacco manufacturers, too, stand to take a battering and even the supermarkets, who openly admit that the return in pounds sterling per square foot of retail space at their kiosks is greater than most other areas of their stores, similarly stand to lose out.

From March 1, 2012, sales of tobacco products have been banned from vending machines in Northern Ireland and similar plans to ban the display of tobacco in large shops will definitely be introduced here later this year in an attempt to reduce smoking-related fatalities.

Northern Ireland will also be part of a UK-wide consultation on the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products in an attempt to help resolve the problem of tobacco addiction - yet another step in the right direction.

But, at the same time, I'm not quite sure that 'out of sight, out of mind' is going to solve the problem.

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