The UK government is considering introducing ‘plain packaging’ for tobacco products. This would standardise pack size, fonts and destroy branding in the category. These discussions are taking place even before the effects of the display ban, which will come into force from next month, have been understood.
The government seems intent on creating a tidal wave of legislation, when it would be more sensible to assess the impact of the display ban, before considering further tobacco restrictions. What’s more, the logic behind the proposed move to plain packaging is seriously flawed. So flawed, in fact, that even the anti-tobacco lobby knows that it would have no effect on existing smokers.
Those campaigning for plain packaging say it is an essential tool in the battle to dissuade teenagers from starting to smoke, and that children should not be exposed to the ‘fashionable design’ of cigarette packs.
However, they seem to conveniently overlook the fact that from 2015, tobacco will not be visible to shoppers of any age, in any store - unless they snatch a glimpse of the retailer handing a customer their requested cigarettes, or momentarily catch sight of cigarette packs when a shopkeeper unlocks the stocked tobacco gantry.
There is no existing research that demonstrates smoking uptake rates for young people would drop if plain packaging came into force. A report on plain packaging by the Adam Smith Institute, a respected think tank, argues that the proposed ban will do nothing for public health and is “profoundly illiberal”.
However, I’m firmly against the introduction of plain packaging for another, too-often overlooked reason. I believe the introduction of plain packaging could be the final nail in the coffin for many hard-pressed local stores.
Local shops operate on extremely tight margins, with margins for smaller stores averaging between one and two per cent of turnover. With tobacco making up a quarter of sales in the average convenience store, the proposed move to plain packaging might tip some shops over the edge. Why? Because plain packaging would give the ‘green light’ to counterfeiters and criminal gangs, taking tobacco sales from legitimate, hardworking shopkeepers and shifting them to the black market.
Communities that have already lost many of their local amenities could be left with graveyards of boarded-up village stores and closed forecourts.
Because plain packaging is easier to copy and cheaper to reproduce, criminal gangs who obviously don’t pay taxes and duty will be able to undercut legitimate retailers. Furthermore, counterfeit cigarettes can be highly dangerous - with more than three times the level of heavy metals found in legitimate brands. Criminal gangs are also likely to target underage smokers via non-traditional retail channels, such as car boot sales or street hawkers, with the likely outcome that there will be rising numbers of younger smokers.
This goes against all the efforts the government has made in promoting responsible retailing.