Licensing of tobacco sales must be on the agenda Reply

The Scottish Parliament is currently considering a Bill to introduce a licensing regime for air weapons, and tidy up various other licensing areas.

This got us thinking about what products and actions require a licence and which don’t. If the licensing system is intended “to advance public health” then there is one rather large gap which this Bill is ideally placed to close – tobacco.

Everyone knows that you need a licence to sell alcohol. There’s a government website which tells you that you also need a licence to have people staying in a caravan on your land, fell trees, exhibit performing animals and place tables or chairs on the pavement outside your premises.

What you don’t need a licence to do is to sell tobacco – far and away the greatest cause of preventable ill health and death in our society.

In fact there are only two people in the whole of Scotland (we’ll come to that) who cannot legally sell tobacco. Many retailers voluntarily restrict this to over-18s, but even so there are no required skills, training or qualifications. It’s a very odd way to do business.

Tobacco has been a priority area for health improvement under successive Scottish administrations. Recently we have seen legislation to remove retail tobacco displays and to ban unstaffed vending machines. We have comprehensive legislation to prohibit tobacco advertising and of course a ban on smoking in enclosed public areas. Yet at the same time the sale of tobacco remains a very open and liberal market.

We do have a tobacco retailers register, with the requirement that anyone selling tobacco should be listed here. But don’t confuse this with the full licensing scheme governing alcohol sales:

– The enforcement mechanisms for the retail register lack the strength of those in a full licensing system. At a time when 50% of 13 and 15 year-olds who regularly smoke report that they buy tobacco from shops, and while 15-20% of “test purchases” result in a retailer selling tobacco to an underage customer, only two individuals have been banned from selling tobacco. The order applies to the person and not the premises so in one of these cases the shop has since been leased to another person, who has continued to trade.

– There are no entry requirements to being on the tobacco retailers register. So that while 1% of the Scottish population (52,000 individuals) can sell alcohol , everyone except the two individuals in receipt of banning orders can sell tobacco.

The retail register does give us new information regarding the nature and the extent of the tobacco retail trade in Scotland. As of 29th September 2014 there were 9859 entries listed on the register – suggesting a tobacco retailer for every 400 adults (or 100 smokers) in Scotland.

The end result is that, 50 years after the publication of the US Surgeon General’s report “The Health Consequences of Smoking”, which categorically established the damage smoking causes to health, there are retail outlets selling tobacco in every High Street and in every community in Scotland, from A and A Caldwell to Z-Z Distribution.

The Scottish Government has set a key national outcome that “we will live longer, healthier lives” and has adopted an ambitious target of making Scotland free from tobacco by 2034. Yet the ubiquity of supply presents tobacco as a normal, everyday consumer product, just as the tobacco companies wish us to see it. We know that growing up in an environment where tobacco use is the norm makes children more likely to take up smoking themselves.

The new alcohol licensing scheme explicitly introduced a new policy objective “to protect and improve public health”. Extending licensing arrangements to cover sales of tobacco would provide a significant opportunity to pursue the improvement of public health through enabling the setting of local health goals and regulating the supply of tobacco accordingly and generating an enforcement regime with real teeth, helping to reduce the supply of tobacco to young people and tackling the problem of illicit tobacco.

Merely to suggest any restriction on who can sell tobacco and how will elicit an outcry from those who are in the business of selling it.

But the 2034 target provides a long lead-in time, and to defend the status quo is to cling to a business model that relies on maintaining ill-health and addiction amongst customers. 20 years should be enough time to find a better way of serving communities.


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