The government's failure to raise awareness of the tobacco age limit change has created a new legal minefield for retailers to navigate
The day of the UK's tobacco age limit change has been and gone with little more than a passing mention in the media. The Department of Health's four-stage communications campaign was intended to 'raise awareness of the change and encourage compliance among retailers and consumers', but there seems to be a worrying level of ignorance, particularly among those most affected - the teenage smokers.
Retailers who have responsibly displayed the required signage are now facing a backlash from young people who are blaming them for the new restrictions. Many managers are finding it hard to convince shoppers the age limit is government policy and are having to deal with aggressive teenagers. This could potentially put unacceptable stress on shop floor staff, who may be dealing with abuse or intimidating behaviour during their shifts.
Suddenly, store owners are facing new legal burdens, which are related directly, and indirectly, to the tobacco age change. The first and most easily tackled issue is one that most licensed retailers already face on a day-to-day basis - the threat of financial penalties for selling age-restricted products to underage shoppers. Trading Standards officers will be able to send mystery shoppers into stores to check they are complying, and retailers who fail the tests or who are found by any other means to be selling tobacco to minors can be fined up to £2,500.
The only foolproof way for retailers to avoid falling foul of the legislation is to operate a 'no ID, no sale' policy. It is the responsibility of the business owner to ensure all shop workers are aware that 16 and 17-year olds are no longer allowed to purchase tobacco, and that they know which forms of identification are acceptable.
The second issue is less obvious, but may have more serious implications for store owners. If an employee is subjected to distressing abuse from teenagers, the employer may be liable for any resulting conditions such as stress under health and safety regulations. The fact that the age change has been so poorly publicised means that any frustration will be exacerbated as young people are told without warning that they will no longer be able to get their nicotine fix. An assessment of the risks and the control measures necessary to avoid or reduce those risks should be made.
Clear signage will help to alert customers to the new rules before they reach the counter, but it is crucial to make sure staff are properly trained to deal with complaints. On a basic level, this means being tactful and staying calm no matter how abusive the customer may become. To manage the situation initially, business owners should ensure they have more than one person on a shift at the same time. At the very least, varying shift patterns can avoid putting stress on just one member of staff at key times such as early morning, lunchtime or late afternoon, when teenagers are leaving school or college. Being contactable at all times during opening hours will also ease the pressure and give employees backup if they need it.
As long as retailers stand their ground on identification and make sure employees know they have the full support of their bosses, they can avoid the legal minefield. To be a responsible employer, it is necessary to protect employees - the customer isn't always right when it comes to the sale of age-restricted products.n
Simon Jones is a partner in licensing and business compliance & defence at law firm Cobbetts