The bizarre new world of tobacco ‘display’

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.
Martin Moodie

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‘Tobacco sold here’ says the sign. But otherwise you wouldn’t know it. The only other evidence that one can  purchase cigarettes is the wording alongside – “It is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18.”

Welcome to the bizarre new world of tobacco retailing in the UK High Street, where changes to the Health Act mean that tobacco products sold in most retail outlets cannot be displayed.

So, in my local WHSmith store (pictured), all you see are a couple of signs and an ugly grey plastic curtain, behind which the products lurk.

The legislation, aimed at reducing the temptation to smoke for children and young people, requires all large shops and supermarkets to scrap displays at the point of sale. Anti-tobacco bodies argued successfully to government that displaying cigarettes alongside sweets normalises tobacco in the minds of children.

Thanks entirely to the unstinting efforts of travel retail industry lobbyists (notably the ETRC), English airport travel retail outlets are excluded from the ban, through the creation of so-called tobacco display areas in the shops.  That allows them to be displayed openly, though responsibly, in outlets such as World Duty Free’s Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 store below.

But as those same lobbyists point out, the pressure on the channel from anti-tobacco interests is unrelenting. The recent dramatic slashing in allowances from 250 cigarettes in Australia to 50 underlines the pressure on governments to restrict (and even ban) duty free sales.

As reported, The Nuance Group was hit recently with fines totalling A$337,500 (US$344,000) after being found in breach of tobacco display laws at Sydney Airport in December 2009. The company was also forced to pay A$50,000 (US$51,000) in costs to the Prosecutor. Nuance argued, unsuccessfully, that its airside display should be subject to Federal not State laws.

I’ve seen that Mega B store, back in 2010 when I was preparing a special supplement on the airport’s revamped International Terminal. I thought then that the restrictions and barriers to purchase (pictured below) couldn’t be any tougher, nor could the retailer have acted any more responsibly. 

[Pictures from May 2012]

The NSW Department of Health thought otherwise, finding on several inspections that tobacco products, including cigars, were displayed on open shelving, thus breaching the regulations. 

Nuance was unlucky. But the point here is that whether travel retailers are bound by national or local regulations, or whether they have an exemption from them, they must be constantly on their guard to ensure they are not leaving themselves vulnerable to the ever-swelling mood of anti-tobacco critics.

Someone is watching you. And it’s not always a shopper.

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