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Earl Howe: Prohibiting displays of tobacco products will hit small businesses hard and do little - if anything - to improve public health

Earl Howe Earl Howe has been a peer since 1984, was a minister in John Major's Government and has been an Opposition spokesman in the Lords on health and social services since 1997.

As the Shadow Minister for Health in the Lords, I am fully signed-up to the public health objectives with regard to tobacco. In particular, I believe that it is important that we continue to take steps to reduce the take-up of smoking by young people. I supported the ban on tobacco advertising and promotion in 2002 and the recent raising of the age threshold for the sale of tobacco products to 18. I support any reasonable measures that are based on sound, convincing evidence. But I am not convinced by the evidence for what the Government is now proposing – prohibiting displays of tobacco products in shops.

The Government claims that by banning displays, fewer young people would take up smoking. Yet there is little  evidence that this would be the case, either in the experience of countries that have introduced bans – such as Iceland and Canada – or in the research that has been undertaken into youngsters’ perceptions of displays.

Is it not obvious that, if you show one youngster a photograph of a point-of-sale in a shop without a tobacco display, and a second youngster a photograph with a tobacco display, the second youngster is likely to have a better recall of cigarette brands than the first? Yet from that kind of simplistic research, the conclusion has been drawn that youngsters are influenced by product displays and are more likely to become smokers as a result. That is not convincing evidence; it is pure speculation. It in no way justifies the creation of a new criminal offence for displaying cigarettes which in any case cannot legally be sold to persons under 18.

It is well researched fact that young people are influenced by having parents who smoke, by their friends, by wanting to seem cool and more adult. Rather than just banning displays, therefore, our party is committed to exploring meaningful policies which would bring effective public health benefits. In the House of Lords I moved an amendment to ban the purchase of tobacco on behalf of children. The Government’s own figures demonstrate that this is the most serious component part of youth access to tobacco. Quite so, and we would address this gap in the law, where the Government has failed to do so.

I would also like to increase the availability of Nicotine Replacement Therapy. These alternative products, there to give support to those who would like to give up smoking, should be put on prominent display in shops. As a counterpart to this I would like an increased range of staff within the NHS to be able to prescribe them, and for more research to be done into generic alternatives.

These provisions would reduce smoking in our society and improve public health. Unlike the proposed display ban in shops, they are substantiated by real evidence.

There is, however, a perfectly acceptable, ready-made alternative to the banning of displays. At the time of the passage of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002, the Government said that it was satisfied with the way in which tobacco products were displayed in shops. But, just in case circumstances might change, they added powers to the legislation that enabled them to regulate the size and content of tobacco displays. They have not made any such regulations over the past seven years. Why not? 

I particularly worry about the impact that a prohibition would have on shops, not least small corner shops, in what are bound to be years of hard times. It is retailers who will have to bear the cost of the ban, by either covering the gantry or selling their tobacco products from an under the counter unit. Small retailers fear that the ban will reduce ‘footfall’ in their shops and thus reduce total turnover. For many shops this would be extremely serious.

Retail experts have estimated that a ban is likely to cost a small newsagent a minimum of £2,000 and supermarkets around £25,000 for each outlet. The response of Ministers has been that the cost for small retailers is likely to be no more than £500. They have also said that, in recognition of the current economic crisis, they will introduce the ban in two stages – for large shops in 2011 and small shops in 2013. They seem not to have heard that most economists around the world are predicting an economic downturn whose effects will be felt way beyond those years. 

I am in no way seeking to suggest that there should be a crude trade-off between public health benefits and economic considerations. Rather, the public health benefits have not been robustly demonstrated and the harm that a ban would inflict is likely to be wholly disproportionate. Many small shops that play a vital role in their local community have predicted that the overall cost of the ban to them is likely to put them out of business.

Quite apart from the costs to retailers of complying with the ban they, and others, fear that the ban will increase the illicit trade in smuggled and counterfeit tobacco products that on the Government’s own admission, is currently costing the Exchequer over £3 billion a year and, up to £26 billion since 2000. Since display bans were introduced in many parts of Canada, smuggled tobacco sales there have rocketed. In the UK, in very many places, ‘black market’, half price, tobacco products sold by illicit traders are already the greatest threat in terms of competition to small shops. With a display ban, the illicit trade will benefit.  That has its own serious risks for smoking by young people. The illicit trader does not care about the age of his customers.

In contrast, our party is committed to exploring new ways to combat tobacco smuggling and has convened a cross-departmental group of Shadow Ministers for that purpose.

In its eagerness to ban displays, the Government is passing over other measures that would have real effect on smoking by young people. It should instead include these in the current Health Bill that is in Parliament.


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