Packets of cigarettes will disappear from the shelves of supermarkets in England on Friday and must stay hidden in closed cupboards, out of sight and – the government and campaigners hope – out of mind.
New legislation, aimed at reducing the temptation to smoke for children and young people, will require all large shops and supermarkets to scrap displays at the point of sale. Campaigners argue that these have become more visual, colourful and attractive as bans on other forms of advertising have closed down marketing opportunities for tobacco companies.
Cancer Research UK, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and others also say that displaying cigarettes alongside sweets normalises tobacco in the minds of children, making appear harmless and available.
The government agrees. Ministers say that removing tobacco from sight will help discourage young people from taking up smoking.
Newsagents and small stores can display cigarettes until 2015, giving them time to refit shelves and cabinets.
The ban has become a reality in the face of stiff opposition by Big Tobacco, which until December appeared intent on a legal challenge. Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco, British American Tobacco and Philip Morris argued that the ban was disproportionate, breached EC competition law and would encourage tobacco smuggling. But they dropped the case in January, saying that by the time it was heard the ban would be in place.
Hard lobbying has also come from corner shops, small stores and newsagents who say tobacco sales are crucial to their business.
Opponents of the ban argue that there is no evidence it will prevent young people starting to smoke, which is the main aim. Only a handful of countries have brought in a display ban: Iceland in 2001, Thailand in 2005, Ireland in 2009 and Norway in 2010. The best evidence, however, is thought to be in Canada, where 10 states have implemented bans since 2004.
Prof David Hammond from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who advised the UK Department of Health over the legal case brought by the tobacco companies, says smoking patterns among young people aged 15 to 19 changed significantly after the bans took effect.
“I can tell you that smoking prevalence was lower among Canadian youth after display bans were implemented,” he said.
“In addition, the number of cigarettes per day reported by both youth and adult smokers was significantly lower after display bans were implemented. These differences remained significant after statistically adjusting for changes in cigarette price, which are strongly associated with smoking behaviour.”
Hammond and other experts acknowledge that it is possible the change was caused by something other than the display ban, as pro-tobacco campaigners assert, but other studies have shown that children and young people are influenced by colourful “powerwalls” of cigarette packets and other displays in shops.
Claims that smoking increased in parts of Canada after the display ban are wrong, Hammond says.
The most effective opposition to the ban has come from small retailers and newsagents. The tobacco industry helps fund some of their trade organisations and has been accused of using them to front the campaign against the display ban.
ASH points to “Save Our Shop” postcards sent to every MP in 2008, when the Labour government’s health bill containing the original display ban measures was heading through parliament. They were sent by a group called Responsible Retailers, the campaigning arm of the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, which is fully funded by the Tobacco Manufacturers Association.
ASH also points out that the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN), the Rural Shops Alliance and the Association of Convenience Stores all receive funds from tobacco companies.
The retailers argue that they are campaigning in their own interests and not on behalf of the tobacco companies. Graeme Collins of the NFRN acknowledged that two of its 20 awards were sponsored by BAT and Imperial Tobacco in 2011, but said it was “absolutely farcical” to suggest its stance on the display ban reflected anything other than its members’ interests.
BAT admitted last year in a letter to the MP Kevin Barron that it had “provided financial assistance to the NFRN in relation to this campaign”, but Collins said it had not handed over money. Instead it allowed the federation to use the services of its PR company for free.
BAT says that on the issue of the display ban it is a natural ally of the retailers. “We are members of the Association of Convenience Stores, as are many other suppliers across all sectors, but this doesn’t buy us influence and they fiercely guard their independence,” a spokesperson said.
“Only retailers can be members of the NFRN, but we openly engage with them on areas where we share common views.
“We are also members of the Rural Shops Alliance but, again, it is up to them and their members how they choose to use this membership fee contribution.”
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