They call it “going dark” – an appropriately sinister-sounding term for anything connected to the sale of an addictive, killer product such as tobacco.
But the industry term actually refers to something that the health promotion community sees as a bright prospect – putting glitzy displays of cigarettes out of sight.
Starting in April, the tobacco display ban that already applies in supermarkets will extend to corner shops and other smaller stores.
Cigarettes and other tobacco will be out of sight behind small grey doors. The aim is to also to put tobacco out of mind and out of fashion among young people – an important step as Scotland moves forward with its ambition to achieve a generation free from tobacco by 2034.
Bright cigarette gantries behind shop counters are a clear form of promotion, so it’s right they should be covered up.
But we expect a backlash from Big Tobacco, which fights any initiative that will impact its vast profits by cutting the number of young people hooked into addiction by smoking.
We have previously seen Imperial Tobacco mount a failed legal challenge to the display ban. The tobacco giants, who clearly disbelieved their own claim that the measures would make no difference, put their financial interests before the health of young people and pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court in London.
The judges there ruled unanimously that the Scottish Government did indeed have the right to put public profit before commercial interest and legislate for well-evidenced public health measures.
But the legal wrangling caused a shameful delay to the introduction of the display ban in Scotland’s supermarkets, which was due to start in October 2011 but wasn’t finally introduced until April 2013.
The court battle to derail this crucial child protection measure may be over but misinformation about the display ban is a weapon the tobacco industry will still use.
The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association has previously declared: “There is no evidence to suggest that banning displays of tobacco products at the point of sale will deter young people from taking up smoking.”
That’s despite a range of studies in various countries which show exposure to tobacco displays encourages an interest in smoking and increases the number of young people starting to smoke.
The latest international research on tobacco point-of-sale displays, published in January this year, underlines the success of putting cigarettes out of sight.
It’s too early to judge the effects on smoking prevalence here, but the review says the current evidence suggests there are lower rates of impulse purchase of tobacco in countries which keep tobacco out of sight. Display bans may also help “denormalise” tobacco among young people by affecting their impression of how many of their peer group are smokers. The measure may also make a helpful contribution to providing a supportive environment for smokers to quit.
The researchers say their review found a clear link between smoking and tobacco displays and they recommend bans should continue in countries which have introduced the legislation and be used by those which haven’t yet brought in this child protection measure.
The tobacco industry will no doubt continue its deceptive claims, with supportive retail trade associations voicing concerns about the ban increasing illegal tobacco and threatening the survival of local shops.
We believe that illicit tobacco is a problem but it is unrelated to the display of products. Why should smokers or retailers suddenly resort to the black market because of a display ban?
Big Tobacco has previously made doom-laden predictions about local stores being forced out of business, creating a Save our Shops campaign fronted by the Tobacco Retailers Alliance. But what is the tobacco industry saying now? Japan Tobacco International (JTI) recently told a retail trade publication: “Provide your customers with a great service and the doors will have no effect.”
Before the ban, JTI informed a Scottish Parliament committee the company was unlikely to fund the changes to tobacco gantries because it was “at a loss to understand why the business would want to pay for its products to be out of sight”. Now JTI and Imperial Tobacco are making sure retailers continue to give prominence to tobacco sales by providing covers free to many of the retailers who already have their gantries.
Following the UK Government’s recent decision to bring forward legislation for standardised tobacco packaging, we have heard complaints from retailers’ groups that the combination of the display ban and plain packs amounts to an unacceptable “double whammy”.
Yet these are complementary measures, with plain packaging removing the brand promotion which customers carry around with them. We need both plain packs and the display ban, working in tandem, as Scotland moves towards its goal of having a smoking rate of just 5% in two decades’ time.
So we hope retailers are preparing for the display ban and that they will accept that decreasing smoking rates over time is a valid public health goal that is worth supporting.
This article first appeared in Friends of The Scotsman