Saturday, 4 June 2011

Grocers discuss illicit tobacco in England, ASH Scotland rules in Scotland

An interesting piece from the trade paper The Grocer, explaining why tobacco is increasingly an attractive product for smugglers and rogue traders, and how this threat should be fought, with additional tips for shopkeepers acquiring tobacco from cash and carry suppliers to help them avoid trouble.

In discussing strategies against illicit trade, the writer refers to a gathering of relevant professional people:
.... A recent summit co-ordinated by the Tobacco Manufacturers Association (TMA) and think tank Progressive Vision, and attended by representatives from Trading Standards and the Police, concluded that current partnership working wasn't what it could be, and as a result "intelligence gathering was substantially insufficient". 
 A key element consists of working relationships between retailers and trading standards officers. Retailers are the people most directly and immediately damaged by the activities of rogue traders. They are also in danger as there have been instances of hijackings of retailers' vans while in transit from cash and carry. It is important to retailers that they can use their knowledge to identify rogue traders to the relevant authorities.

Did you spot the problem with all this? The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control asserts that parties' tobacco control strategies should not involve tobacco companies. In the eyes of the FCTC, this summit is unacceptable because of tobacco industry involvement, indeed leadership (in partnership with Progressive Vision). In Scotland they do things 'properly', ASH Scotland gets the credit and produces the report, and the tobacco industry is nowhere in sight.

The tobacco control community must be sensitive to charges that their antics leave the floor open to illicit traders. Not only have they taken a huge interest in illicit tobacco control, they have approached it with their usual insistence that tobacco interests should not get involved, citing the FCTC's demands. It's odd really, as retailers and manufacturers both have a natural interest in protecting legal tobacco trade. The likes of ASH Scotland have no interest in protecting the legal tobacco trade ... they can advise people not to smoke illicit tobacco as it is bad for their health, contributes to terrorists' coffers, and so on. But they will also tell the general public not to smoke legitimate stock either. So what's their game really about?

Denormalisation, of course. If tobacco manufacturers have been able to contribute to illicit tobacco control in the past (for example by helping to fund the No ID No Sale programme), this act of corporate social responsibility must be shown by their enemies in the worst possible light. Tobacco companies are trying to buy the public's good opinion. The only way to stop tobacco manufacturers from doing good things is to exclude them from the whole policy process, and effectively treat them as criminals.

While it's nice to go back to the school playground where there are 'goodies' and 'baddies', it's more than a little naive. More to the point, excluding tobacco manufacturers from the process leaves a gap in the communication line. The TMA/Progressive Vision summit concluded that low levels of intelligence about illicit tobacco is one of the principle obstacles to tackling the problem. In the Scottish scenario, it's hard to see tobacco control officials and retailers as natural allies, who will be able to communicate effectively as partners, since in many areas they have directly opposing interests.

The idea that the health lobby is in control of the issue is meant to be reassuring. But it isn't. The resulting report on the summit called by ASH Scotland (linked above) is blah: assurances that the summit participants/presenters are on top of things, and a run-down of the plans. We learn nothing really of direct interest to retailers (like how to avoid having your tobacco supply raided on the way home from the cash and carry), and there is no critical insight as to why illicit tobacco is such an issue (not for discussion by anyone without tobacco control instincts). This is not proper teamwork. The report describes how the FCTC will require tobacco manufacturers to enable tobacco products to be tracked from production to sale, so that counterfeit stock can readily be identified, but tobacco manufacturers are not involved in any policy discussion and their opinion considered at best irrelevant, at worst self-interested and destructive.

Like the rest of us, they'll just have to do what they are told.  

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