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Mike Penning: Why I am unconvinced by the proposed ban on "point of sale" tobacco advertising

Penning_mike Mike Penning is MP for Hemel Hempstead and a shadow health minister. Here he argues that the Government's latest proposals to prohibit the display of tobacco products in shops is not an effective way to reduce smoking but that it will harm retailers.

The Government’s Health Bill formally came before Parliament in mid-January. At the heart of Labour Ministers’ legislative proposals are far-reaching alterations to the way tobacco is sold in this country – so-called ‘point of sale’ reforms – coupled with measures restricting the use of vending machines. If passed, this Bill will effectively prohibit the public display of tobacco products in supermarkets from 2011 and smaller shops from 2013. 

We are committed to doing all we can to reduce smoking rates, particularly amongst young people, but remain unconvinced at the evidence base so far presented – Labour even concedes the picture is ‘not definitive’ – and this has been brought into sharp focus by current economic trends.  Very recently, the International Monetary Fund forecast that the British economy would shrink at a faster rate than any other developed nation in the world this year.  While of course we hope such assessments prove incorrect, my colleagues and I are aware – not least from the testimonies of our own constituents – of the pressures faced by small businesses and retailers.

The Director of the British Retail Consortium, Stephen Robertson, commenting on the Government’s plans, has said:

"This will hit small stores, which lack the space and resources, particularly hard … It will impose thousands of pounds of pointless refit costs on stores." 

In fact, the Department of Health’s own consultation acknowledges responses from the retail industry that tobacco sales can make up 20 to 30 per cent of turnover in some smaller shops - possible reductions in footfall cannot be entirely ruled out.   Can it be right, given the existing challenges, to impose another burden and additional risks on those selling a legal product?

There is a strong moral case for tackling the health problems posed by smoking, though I do believe a dispassionate analysis would recognise that there is not yet sufficient weight of evidence to endorse a ban on point of sale. Few other countries have yet introduced such a ban – and in the first Canadian province to do so, the percentage of smokers initially increased from 21 per cent in 2002 to 24 per cent in 2003. Indeed, the choice of language used by representatives from the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health in a recent article is revealing – point of sale bans in Iceland and Canada are now being cited as ‘coinciding’ with a fall in youth smoking, rather than effecting this.

However, there must be no doubt whatsoever that it is imperative to reduce both the number of individuals smoking and specifically the number of young people taking up the habit. It’s stark, but necessary, to bear in mind that tobacco products are estimated to kill one in every two life-long users. As such, breaking the pattern of addiction must be seen as a priority.   

Rather than pursue a policy for which supportive evidence is lacking, we must consider meaningful alternatives. Making an impact on tobacco smuggling will be central to our approach. The UK consumption of some 8.5 billion manufactured cigarettes and equivalent of 7.3 billion own-roll cigarettes (as well as 5 billion cigarettes purchased internationally) directly undermines the use of taxation to cut smoking rates. Furthermore, the latest Government estimates of non-UK duty paid cigarette consumption amount to tax revenue losses of up to £4.1 billion, at a time we can ill afford them.  In order to address this, our Party has convened a cross-departmental group of Shadow Ministers to examine new approaches to tobacco smuggling.

We will also look to provide increased support for those who want to give up. It is important that nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) be given increased prominence – and so we will encourage retailers to move patches, gum and the like to point of sale as a tangible alternative to cigarettes. Making NRT more accessible by looking seriously at generic alternatives, and ensuring that equivalent strengths are available to those who have an established smoking habit will also be examined. Within the NHS, we wish to expand the range of professionals who can prescribe NRT. Finally, we are bound to ensure existing legislation is of merit – as proxy buying on behalf of a child remains legal, despite the Government having raised the age of purchase for cigarettes to 18.

I was a keen supporter of the smoking ban, and will continue to advocate practical initiatives to reduce smoking. We have a responsible duty, though, not to let this come at the expense of legitimate small businesses when the efficacy of proposals is questionable. Conservatives will be engaging in constructive debate with the Government as the Bill goes through Parliament; consideration of the harm that can be caused by smoking, particularly to our children, requires this of us.


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