Saturday, 11 September 2010

Scotsman report on backlash against tobacco display ban

Expect a retaliation from ASH Scotland on Monday morning! The Scotsman reports that opposition to the tobacco display ban, expressed in consultation responses on the legislation, runs at 90 per cent. Figures in England showed a very different picture: most of the responses were in favour of the legislation, but most of the support from England came in the form of responses from Department of Health-funded bodies. This means that Scottish retail trade organisations have effectively mobilised their members to respond to the consultation.

Next year supermarkets will have to cover their tobacco displays, with small shops following in 2013. In essence the changes mean that tobacco must be concealed from view at all times, and time will only tell if enforcers are prepared to be sensible about stocking-up times, busy selling periods and other complications involved in shop work.

ASH Scotland's view is that opposition to the display ban is the work of tobacco companies. Myths and Realities explains how shops are a front for tobacco companies, and any concern about whether the legislation will work, or whether it will drive customers into the hands of illegal traders, is quite misplaced (see p 4 of this consultation response from ASH Scotland).

A similar allegation appears down under: wily tobacco companies are using tobacconists as a respectable front to campaign against plain packaging.

As far as I understand the tobacco trade, competition between brands is far more important to tobacco companies than luring new smokers into the habit, which is why they have taken the display bans and the threats of mandatory plain packaging far more seriously than the smoking ban. Branding also marks out genuine products from counterfeit products and a branding ban would all but destroy any distinction between genuine and counterfeit products and make it much easier to pass off counterfeits as real. This seems to be a serious impediment to trade and it is not surprising that the tobacco companies are taking the threat seriously. I am quite surprised that health authorities are not worried too.

Article 5.3. of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control seeks to limit tobacco industry 'interference' in policy making. It runs against a tradition of 'stakeholder consultation', which means asking affected parties about policy proposals (more discussion here). Regulation of all industries is part of government, but it goes too far by routinely excluding the affected industry. Excluding the tobacco industry from discussions about regulating tobacco is not only unfair, it also leaves policy makers with an incomplete picture often informed only by hostile outsiders to the industry. Clearly tobacco companies are being advised that their word is as good as dirt, and if they want to fight for their interests they should do it through third parties.

As far as industry lobbying on either the display ban or the issue of plain packaging, it is absolutely imperative that such a debate takes place. Plenty of money is being thrown at the pro-ban side of the argument, but the only people who have money to fight back are tobacco companies: the other sector of the trade, tobacconists and the retail trade, don't have the margins or manpower to orchestrate a campaign to oppose the anti-tobacco lobby. As anyone who has ever tried to get into politics knows, influence doesn't come cheap.

In any case – well done the Scottish retail trade for mounting an effective campaign: let's keep it going!

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