Where have all the cigarettes gone? My weekly shopping took me into two large supermarkets. The first is arranged so that you walk passed the kiosk on the way out and I noticed that the tobacco displays were covered with plain white sliding doors. I made a point of looking in the second store and here also the displays had been covered with white doors carrying signs about the age restriction for buying tobacco.
I hadn’t heard anything about this new measure coming into force and when I got home I found out why. The new requirement is not, actually, compulsory until 6th April so these two stores both happen to have acted a few days before the new rules take effect.
6th April is, of course, Good Friday, one of the few days when English supermarkets are not allowed to open so, I suppose, the government could, if it wished, claim 100% compliance with the new law on that day as no-one will be able to see any tobacco products in supermarkets, just like previous Good Fridays.
I don’t know if the date was deliberately chosen in the belief that it would give supermarkets the chance to change their setup during the day’s closure. I’m assuming, however, that the large supermarkets have got teams of people going from store to store making the changes so some are further ahead of the deadline than others.
Still, leave all that aside, and think about what this measure is intended to achieve and what chance it has of success. The stated intention is to prevent young people from starting smoking. It may be that making cigarettes harder to locate would, for some people, impose enough of a time delay to get them to overcome the impulse to buy a pack ‘just to try’. If that was the thinking then you’d have to say the supermarkets have done a good job of frustrating that.
Covering the displays in white makes them stand out because supermarkets tend to cover every available inch of space with promotional material so a large white space screams for attention. And, just to help clear any confusion over what lies behind the white doors, they have, as I said above, large signs saying ‘IT IS ILLEGAL TO SELL TOBACCO PRODUCTS TO UNDER 18s’.
The supermarkets can say all they want about how responsible they are and how they care about the health of the community but their actions are rather different.
I confess to not having looked at the evidence for this measure; I’m sure someone must have done studies. On the face of it, it would seem to be unlikely to have any significant impact. I’ve never heard anyone suggesting that heroin dealers being unable to openly display their wares acts as a disincentive to potential purchasers.
At least, there is no doubting the position of the tobacco companies themselves. A similar measure was due to be introduced in Scotland but Imperial Tobacco believed it had found a legal technicality and took its case to court. Tobacco companies are not deterred by losing court cases, as happened, and the matter is now being taken to appeal. I’m sure Imperial Tobacco will take its case through every possible court so as to delay the measure for as long as possible.
That case, in fact, may be strong evidence that, unlikely though it might seem, this measure will impact on cigarette and tobacco sales. Otherwise why would Imperial be so keen to get it struck down?