Whatever you think of tobacco, it’s important to remember that it is still perfectly legal to sell it. My fear is that the display ban and, if it comes into force, plain packaging will make it feel more illicit - and paradoxically increase trade of tobacco that actually is.
We would all strongly support any initiative that stops children having access to cigarettes. But the dark market for tobacco has not achieved its objective in other markets and the Irish example strongly indicates that the unintended consequence is a massive lessening of proper controls on tobacco access, due to the huge rise in smuggled and counterfeit stock sold by unlicensed vendors.
Now the decision regarding the display ban has been made made, we have to plan for it, of course, and help our customers make the most of the opportunity offered by staggered implementation.
In the meantime, however, wholesalers are incurring significant costs in re-engineering depots to deal with the fact that, from 1 April 2012, non-tobacco customers must not access areas where tobacco is on display.
At Parfetts, we are fortunate that in five out of six depots we have a counter service from dedicated tobacco rooms. Only one of our depots features customer self-selection of product, which means we may have fewer changes to make in comparison with competitors. Nonetheless, our outlay to comply with legislation will be several tens of thousands of pounds.
I now worry about mission creep. On tobacco, the government seems to now be set on an extension of an idea where the evidence is at best doubtful about health benefits, to a plan (plain packaging) that is completely untried. Given the rise in black market activity in Ireland, this looks like a criminal charter designed to pacify the health lobby despite its catastrophic, foreseeable flaws.
Most of all, I worry just where these good intentions will take us. It is accepted that any level of smoking is injurious to health, and that it is therefore legitimate to discourage use unless one is ultra-libertarian.
But controversially, we now face a mountain of potential legislation affecting so many other areas of our business, where the harms are less tangible and relate only to misuse rather than sensible consumption. The alcohol bandwagon is rolling rapidly toward us, with sugars and satfats close behind.
Education and tax may be the answers when sensibly implemented, but I would argue that if we are not careful we are set to become a frustrated, straitjacketed society relying on the state knowing best about every aspect of our lives - a prospect I for one feel extremely uneasy about.