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An open letter to Vince Cable

Now is the time to choose between the smoking lobby and the British people.

Dear Vince,
In the next few weeks, you will have to choose sides. Who will you back: doctors, public health professionals, Britain's leading heart and cancer charities and 70 per cent of all voters - or the tobacco industry?

Last year, parliament passed the Health Act. Among other things, it banned shops from openly displaying cigarettes and also cigarette vending machines. Supermarkets have to get rid of their point-of-sale displays late next year; smaller shops have until October 2013 to make the change. The choice you face is to let these bans take effect or to ask parliament to repeal these sections of the Health Act as part of your laudable quest to root out unnecessary regulation. (Similar bans are about to go ahead in Scotland anyway, after Edinburgh's Court of Session rejected Imperial Tobacco's legal challenge to them last month.)

Tobacco advertising was banned seven years ago and smoking in public places was outlawed three years ago. The tobacco lobby opposed both changes but, with public support, MPs and peers faced them down and helped to further one of the great public health successes of our age: the steady reduction in the number of smokers. Today, tobacco companies rely heavily on point-of-sale displays to promote their wares. The new act is designed to close this loophole. YouGov research shows that 70 per cent of British people back the new bans. So does every significant organisation concerned with public health. And international experience tells us that the bans will work; in parti­cular, they are likely to reduce the number of teenagers who take up smoking.

Smoke and mirrors

So, this should be one of your simpler decisions. And it would be, were it not for ferocious lobbying by the tobacco industry. Its campaign is based on two main arguments: that the bans would lead to an upsurge in smuggled cigarettes and therefore cost the government huge amounts in lost revenue; and that the bans would drive small shops out of business. Let's examine these in turn.

In an "advertorial" in the New Statesman on 20 September, Steve Stotesbury, Imperial Tobacco's head of corporate affairs, said the ban "is likely to further fuel the illicit trade in tobacco products - this has certainly occurred in Ireland since their tobacco display ban came into force just over a year ago".

There is no sign from Ireland's official sales data of any such switch. This should not surprise us: for years, the tobacco industry has been seeking to distract attention from its own responsibility to curb smuggling.

In 2003, the Commons public accounts committee estimated that smuggling cost £2.8bn a year in lost revenues and that half of all the cigarettes smuggled into Britain were Imperial Tobacco products. Edward Leigh, the committee's (Conservative) chairman, accused the company of failing to help reduce these "enormous losses . . . [Imperial Tobacco] persisted in exporting large volumes to places like Andorra and Kaliningrad when it must have known that the cigarettes could not possibly be for those domestic markets."

Since then, shamed by criticism and in the face of government and EU pressure, Imperial and other tobacco companies have tightened their controls. The trade in illicit tobacco has fallen sharply. Last month, Imperial was the last of the big four tobacco companies to sign a legally binding 20-year agreement with the European Commission. The companies have the means to stamp out smuggling (including using the latest technology to distinguish genuine from counterfeit cigarette packs) and will face huge penalties if they fail to do so.

As with all crimes, smuggling will never disappear entirely. But there is no evidence that banning point-of-sale displays will reverse recent declines. In Canada, where the display ban was introduced at different times in different provinces over the past ten years, smuggling in the middle of the decade was a greater problem in provinces that had not yet imposed the ban than in those that had. Now that all provinces have banned displays, smuggling has fallen.

Old tricks

Turning to the claim that retailers will suffer badly, the evidence says: don't be fooled. For a start, we have been here before. The tobacco industry said drinkers would desert pubs in vast numbers when smoking was banned in public places three years ago. They didn't. Nor are pubs likely to suffer greatly from the ban on vending machines, as they earn little from them. If one pub were to rip its machine out, it might lose business to its rivals; but if all machines are banned, no pub will suffer significantly.

As for retailers, the evidence from Ireland is that the costs of implementing the ban have been modest. That is not to say there are no costs. After all, the main point of banning point-of-sale displays is to reduce the number of new, teenage smokers - the people who tend to be most influenced by such displays - not to prevent existing smokers from satisfying their addiction. The ban will be beneficial in the long term but the impact will be gradual. Shopkeepers need time to adjust to socially desirable change. They have it. Small retailers have three years to plan for the display ban.

In any case, efficient retailers have managed to survive the halving of the numbers of smokers since the 1970s. Instead of spending money on cigarettes, teenagers will have more money for other things. The retail sector as a whole should not suffer at all.

So, Vince, don't be taken in by the warnings from Big Tobacco. It is simply up to its old tricks, seeking to muddy the waters in order to maintain its profits as a band of merchants of death.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov and a trustee of Ash (Action on Smoking and Health)

Peter Kellner was President of YouGov from 2007 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for Newsnight, the New Statesman, and others.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!