Exclusive: Watch out for tobacco retail licencing

Vouched for by charities and sometimes dismissed by maker, mandatory tobacco retail licensing is something to look out for.

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Debate seems to heating up over the idea of introducing mandatory tobacco retail licencing. While a leading health charity recently declared that most retailers in England (eight in 10) support the introduction of a licence, a prominent international tobacco maker has dismissed the need for further regulations.

Over some time, there have been calls for the introduction of mandatory tobacco retail licence, on the lines of alcohol licence. Such a step has been recommended as an effective tobacco control strategy though in England as well as in most European countries, retailers do not need a licence to sell tobacco products.

In 2019, the government announced the ambition for England to become ‘smoke-free’ by 2030 – achieved when adult smoking prevalence falls to 5 per cent or less. In June this year, “Khan Review: Making smoking obsolete” came out which claimed that “without further action, England will miss the smoke free 2030 target by at least 7 years.

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Among its 15 recommendations to the government, prominent ones were mandatory tobacco licence for shops, increasing the age of sale “from 18, by one year, every year until no one can buy a tobacco product in this country” and more promotion of vaping.

“Currently, anyone and any enterprise can sell tobacco. Retailers need a licence to sell alcohol, but not cigarettes. This can mean shops that sell to underage children, or stocking illicit tobacco, can go unnoticed,” Khan said at the time.

“A licensing scheme is not just a measure to protect young people. It protects the honest small businesses up and down the country that sell only tax-paid products to adults, but are undercut every day by an illicit trade run by criminal gangs who sell smuggled tobacco to anybody who wants it.”

In a written statement to parliament at the time, then health minister Sajid Javid said that government will consider the recommendations of the report while publishing the new Tobacco Control Plan.

Bring the license

Mandatory tobacco licensing once again came into spotlight when Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) called on the government to include retail licensing as part of new Tobacco Control Plan, citing strong sentiment among retailers to bring such regulations.

Released on Nov 1, ASH’s new report “Regulation is not a dirty word” stated that a whopping “81 per cent of local retailers in England support the introduction of a mandatory retail licence in order to sell tobacco”.

The findings are based on the survey of 961 independent tobacco retailers – including newsagents, convenience stores, off-licences and petrol stations.

Other key findings include that 73 per cent support a requirement for tobacco manufacturers to pay a fee to the government for measures to help smokers quit and prevent young people from taking up smoking. While 54 per cent support raising the age of sale for cigarettes from 18 to 21 years. About 83 per cent support mandatory age verification for anyone under 25.

Furthermore, nearly three quarters (71 per cent) support larger fines for breaking the law, 81 per cent support more regular checks by trading standards staff, 84 per cent support quicker action when offences take place and 79 per cent support closure orders for repeated breaches of tobacco laws.

There is currently no licensing scheme in place for tobacco, and no mandatory age verification both of which are supported by over eight in ten local retailers of tobacco.

Citing the ASH report, Bob Blackman, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, called on the government to publish the new Tobacco Control Plan without any further delay. He urged the government to listen to retailers who want tougher regulations, saying “that’s what they (retailers) think will be good for business, not de-regulation”.

“The main argument used by tobacco manufacturers’ against tobacco laws with politicians like me is that they harm small shops. What this survey of nearly 1,000 shopkeepers published today shows is that shopkeepers don’t think that’s true,” Blackman said.

Gateshead-based retailer John McClurey seems to agree with report’s findings here. The retailer, who is now retired, told Asian Trader that the idea of licensing seems comfortable as there have always been some or the other regulations to adhere.

“I retired in July 2022 having been in retail for over 40 years and there have always been regulations to adhere with, not just tobacco but lottery, alcohol, vapes etc. This proposal isn’t introducing a new regulation, it is changing an existing one,” he said.

Retailer John McClurey

Most retailers now operate a Challenge 25 policy, the retailer said, adding that raising the age of tobacco purchase to 21 won’t impact on this as we will just be asking anyone wishing to purchase tobacco who looks under 25 to prove that they are over 21 instead of 18,” the retailer said, in reference to the ASH’s findings.

McClurey added that most customers under the age of 25 are fully aware of all of the various ages at which they can legally buy something.

On the question of licences to sell tobacco, McClurey expressed his approval by stating that it’s a good idea.

“There are a multitude of licences required in many aspects of life. I have a personal licence to sell alcohol which I take seriously and don’t want to risk losing it, same goes for my driving licence. The taxi drivers I used when travelling to launch this report all had taxi licences.

“I have never conducted any research on the topic but this report has and is therefore a good indication of the feelings within the retail trade,” McClurey told Asian Trader.

No Need

In Northern Ireland, since April 2016, retailers have been obliged to register with the tobacco register of Northern Ireland. It was built on a similar scheme already in place in Scotland.

Leading international tobacco maker JTI, however, has dismissed ASH’s report’s suggestions, saying that a regulation is already in place in the form of the existing framework under the tobacco ‘track & trace’ regime.

“ASH’s proposal fails to understand the framework provided by the retailer registration scheme under the tobacco ‘track & trace’ regime administered by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC),” JTI spokesperson told Asian Trader.

Since May 2019, tobacco manufacturers have been required to provide unique identifier codes on cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco products. Cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco must also be tracked through the supply chain.

Pointing out that retailers selling tobacco are already registered on the existing track and trace system, JTI dismissed the ASH’s suggestion of introducing mandatory retail tobacco licensing saying that there is no evidence that it will be beneficial.

“The suggestion that a licensing scheme, on top of existing legislation, would have any benefit is not evident,” said the JTI spokesperson.

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JTI spokesperson reiterated that ‘track and trace’ system requires manufacturers, distributors and retailers to register their business and facilities in order to sell cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco products.

“There are penalties for those that failure to adhere to the law – ‘on-the-spot’ fines of up to £10,000 and/or the suspension or revocation of registrations.

“It has been promised that these powers will be extended to Trading Standards – this is something JTI has been calling for and fully supports, given that Trading Standards undertake the majority of enforcement action on High Streets across the country,” said the spokesperson.

On the way?

Tobacco licensing is a topic that keeps popping its head from time to time. In 2016, a survey by a Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance (TRA) showed 87 per cent of small store owners feared for the future of their shop if they lost the ability to sell tobacco while nearly nine in 10 did not think retail tobacco licensing will reduce illicit trade. TRA at the time called for a pause in the flood of new regulation on local shops.

Reacting to ASH’s recent report, Department of Health and Social Care stated that it is currently considering the wide range of independent recommendations as set out in the Khan Review, which includes further regulation and will provide a further update in due course.

Retailers’ body Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) in its latest briefing to Blackman, who was leading a ruling motion on tobacco licensing the day this went to the press, has urged MPs to tackle the illicit market by making use of the “existing systems such as tobacco track and trace” and consider how more resources can be directed to Trading Standards.

Research conducted by ACS of enforcement officers in Trading Standards across the UK has shown that 61 per cent don’t believe they have the resources to tackle the illicit tobacco and vaping market.

“The government should commit to providing additional funding for illicit tobacco enforcement, as set out in the Khan Review and direct this funding to enforcement teams and local authorities to ensure that they have the staffing and resources that they need to tackle illicit traders,” said ACS chief executive James Lowman.

While Tobacco Control Plan 2017-2022 gave tobacco retail licensing a skip, it now remains a game of wait-and-watch to see if the same gets introduced in the upcoming plan or not.