Action groups have stepped up their campaign for legisaltion on the display of raunchy magazines in recent years - and the government is listening. But is it needed? Beth Phillips reports

C-store owners have grown accustomed to the government telling them how they should display their products. Last year it announced plans to outlaw tobacco displays in small shops from 2013 and brought in tougher alcohol display rules in Scotland.

And now, with 2010 less than a month old, MPs are turning their attention towards pornographic magazines and lads mags. Top-shelf titles and their general interest equivalents have caused controversy in recent years (see timeline) and MPs are, once again, demanding to be able to control how they are displayed and sold. But is this legislation really necessary?

In December, Lindsay Roy, Labour MP for Glenrothes, tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for an urgent review of existing voluntary guidelines to examine the positioning of "displays of sexually graphic material" on shelves, to conceal them in bags and to make them age-restricted. As The Grocer went to press, EDM 412 had already gained the support of 108 MPs or 17% of the House of Commons.

The government's interest has been piqued thanks to a recent rise in the number of action groups against the display of pornography. The Front Page Campaign, for example, was formed in March last year using National Lottery funding. After nine months of lobbying MPs, it persuaded Roy to table his EDM.

"The display of pornographic material in shops has gradually increased over the years, and it's something that has always bothered me from a child protection point of view," says Front Page Campaign chair Amy King. "A lack of response by retailers to individual complaints is the reason we feel an organisation is necessary."

Scottish Women Against Pornography (SWAP) and Object have been equally active. SWAP had a petition tabled in the Scottish Parliament in 2008 calling for government to crack down on sexually graphic material in shops, with responses posted throughout 2009, while an Object petition on the Number 10 website, which closed last month, attracted 1,168 signatures.

Retailers are prepared to stand up to these groups because lads mags and newspapers such as the Daily Star and Daily Sport are useful earners. According to ABC figures, the Daily Star was the only national newspaper title to increase sales in the year to October 2009. Its circulation grew by 20% to 836,556 and sales of its sister paper the Daily Star Sunday were up 3% year-on-year to 364,667. Top-shelf titles may be moving towards subscription or web versions, but retailers claim there is still a small profit margin to be made from newsstand sales, and young men eager to ogle naked women without the stigma of buying specialist porn titles buy nearly 300,000 copies of Nuts and Zoo every month.

But retailers also acknowledge the need to balance the drive for ever more sales with sympathy towards customers who might find the suggestive front covers of titles like Zoo or the Daily Sport offensive. According to the Association of News Retailing (ANR), retailers are doing this by following a voluntary code set out in the mid-1990s by a cross-industry group consisting of retailers, wholesalers and publishers and updated in 2008 to include lads mags. This code suggests retailers should only display adult titles on the top shelf and out of the reach of children, and should not sell them to under 18s. Lads mags, the code advises, should not be displayed at children's eye level or below, or adjacent to children's titles. It also suggests overlapping them to avoid showing full front covers.

"All retailers can do is make sure they display and sell these titles correctly," says ANR MD John Lennon. "I would say they adhere to the voluntary code."

His view is echoed by retailers who feel MPs are trying to tie businesses up in yet more red tape. "If we have any complaints from the public, they are normally aimed at lads mags, in which case we use vanity covers in those stores," explains Nigel Mills, MD of c-store and CTN chain Mills Group. "Self regulation and ignorance of current laws and how to apply them seems to have fallen victim to the government's wish to banish out of sight all difficult issues."

Paul Delves, MD of Welsh Borders-based Harry Tuffins, is equally unimpressed. "We've never had a complaint here. It's just a bit of harmless fun. What will they try to stop us selling next car mags because cars cause accidents?"

There is already too much pressure on the retailers that sell adult materials to police mags, believes David Daniel, trade relations manager for the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN). The whole industry, including publishers and distributors, should play their part, he says. "While it is right that retailers should take their share of responsibility for displaying magazines in appropriate places, publishers must also ensure front cover graphics are acceptable for display," he says.

Publishers claim they are already doing their bit although in practice this seems to amount to little more than increasing the pressure on retailers. The Periodical Publishers Association says a hard copy of the voluntary guidelines was sent to 55,000 retailers in 2007, and last year a reminder was sent to all retail multiple head offices. "We're committed to collaborating with stakeholders in the magazine supply chain to ensure men's lifestyle magazines are displayed in a responsible and appropriate way, as set out in the guidelines," a spokesman adds.

Surprisingly, even the Front Page Campaign is sympathetic towards shopkeepers. "Too high an onus is being placed on the retailer and we do recognise this is a burden," says King. But that sympathy is tempered with a conviction that not enough is being done to push measures such as keeping sexually graphic publications on the top shelf, selling them face down and overlapping the covers.

This year, retailers are going to come under increased pressure to clean up their acts. Of course, they're not obliged to sell top-shelf mags. Hamdy Shahein, the owner of Hamdy's Newsagent in Stoke Newington, north London, famously won a long-running battle against Smiths News to stop it sending magazines he deemed pornographic to his shop.

His campaign against pornography has been running since 1989 and at its height his 'Porn Free' network had the support of as many as 500 retailers. "Reading pornography is entirely up to individuals, but I will not sell top-shelf material under any circumstances," he says. "I used to make a lot of money from them, but money isn't everything. Principle has to come first."

Shahein is part of the vocal minority and one that's growing. Retailers learnt the hard way with the tobacco display ban that when the vocal minority get louder, legislation is likely to follow. Their task is to convince MPs the voluntary code is already restricting access to sexually explicit magazines, so any laws governing their sale are unnecessary. As the NFRN's Daniels points out, legislation could open a whole new can of worms.

"Politicians need to use common sense when considering changes to the law in response to no more than a handful of complaints each year," he says. "They also need to consider how it might be practically applied to potentially hundreds of different magazines that have a different cover and content with every new issue."

Unless retailers can show the voluntary code is working, though, MPs could decide that bowing to minority pressure is the path of least resistance.