“I had a customer come in saying that rolling tobacco and everything was going to be banned, so that only standard cigarettes would be left,” says Kate Clark, owner of Sean’s News in Upton-upon Severn. “He is a RYO smoker, so he was hyper-sensitive to it.”
With the latest round of tobacco regulation arriving on 20 May, it is clear from the many stories Vape Business has heard like this, that the industry and the customers it serves are not yet ready.
For the avoidance of doubt, and to correct the worried customer, here is what is happening: from 20 May it will be illegal to sell flavoured tobacco including menthol cigarettes anywhere in the UK. The law actually changed in 2016, as part of the EU Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), but the industry was given a four-year period to prepare for the changes.
With retailers reporting so little knowledge about the ban among customers, it is not certain that this has been time well spent.
For Clark, the arrival of a customer who thinks they’re aware of what’s coming – but actually doesn’t – provides a double challenge: “I said, not as far as I know” but you start to doubt yourself.”
It is for this reason that the industry has started stepping up its support to retailers. Reps have been updating and advising retailers on the changes while JTI has been inviting retailers like Clark to evening meetings where store owners and their staff can learn how to prepare, and about the opportunities that exist afterwards.
Despite a last-minute slew of innovation to help retailers around the regulations (see Rizlas Flavour Infusions, menthol-flavour cards which transform standard cigarettes into menthols), it is clear than most of the industry is focused on switching these smokers towards harm-reduction products.
Philip Morris launched menthol-ban-retail.co.uk to provide retailers with a way to access its IQOS heat-not-burn technology. Every major tobacco company is now positioning its vaping brand at the heart of its proposition. Billions of pounds have been spent on research and development.
There is clearly a range of credible, slick brands available to help menthol smokers make the switch and the fact that anti-smoking lobby groups, local authorities, cancer charities and medical organisations are backing the industry is further proof that vaping will be the winner when menthol cigarettes disappear. For now, however, retailers are facing the reality of dealing with a not-quite-dead sub-category.
“At the moment we’re running stock down,” says Paul Cheema of Nisa Malcolms Store in Tile Hill near Coventry. “Do we really need Rothmans if we have X brand and Y brand? It’s still four months off though, so we’re not changing too much. Most of our customers do not know.”
Kate Clark is also planning to stop buying menthol and crush ball cigarettes soon as she doesn’t want to be faced with having stock left over when the ban comes into place.
Aman Uppal, a One Stop retailer in Mount Nod, also in Coventry has been told any menthol stock left will be bought back by his suppliers, but this seems to a rarity from the retailers Vape Business spoke to.
While manufacturers are advising retailers to maintain their tobacco category management in the months ahead, it is therefore unsurprising that many retailers are already reducing ranges and readying for the ban.
And where are they transferring their efforts to? In many cases it’s vaping. Haren Bhatt runs a newsagent in North London and like others feels as though his customers aren’t ready for the menthol ban. “E-liquids mean there is still a glimmer of hope,” he tells Vape Business.
Despite the confusion in the air when it comes to the menthol ban, the investment in the vaping industry and its widespread backing means that this glimmer should shine brightly in the year ahead.
MENTHOL BAN: THE RETAILERS’ PERSPECTIVE
Kate Clark – Sean’s News Upton-upon-Severn
I went to a JTI out of hours meeting where they spoke about vaping, Nordic Spirit and the menthol ban. Hats off to them, they gave us a lot of information. I’m going to stop buying menthol cigarettes next month because I’ve heard nothing about any swaps from suppliers. We sell a lot of crushballs but I don’t want to have them sitting on the shelf. I don’t think there’s enough knowledge about vaping, so I don’t push it and I only stock products by JTI and Imperial.
Aman Uppal – One Stop Mount Nod, Coventry
Tobacco is 25% of our overall turnover and menthol is a third of my tobacco sales – a lot of that is crushball. I have spoken to customers and some are panicking a bit and some have told me that they are going to treat this as a push to quit. They have asked me if vaping is included, which it isn’t, and it is definitely on our minds as something to focus on this year. We won’t need a gantry, with a third of our stock going, so we’ll swap it for e-cigarettes which are visible – it’s a valuable bit of space.
Asif and Abada Akhtar – Premier Smeaton Stores, Kirkaldy
Our weekly tobacco turnover is £7,000 but our vaping sales so far are not significant in comparison –it’s a nice little addition. I’m going to get rid of our gantry which will quadruple the space we give to vaping. That will give space for us to have a vape station. I’m not working with a supplier on that – I will do it myself. We need to make sure our customers are ready as they don’t know the menthol ban is coming.
Haren Bhatt – Universal Newsagent, North London
I’m not too worried about the menthol ban – it’s quite a while away. We’ve had no support from suppliers so far. E-liquids mean there is still a glimmer of hope, but we’ve had no support from the e-cigarette companies, either. There’s a lack of awareness about the ban among my customers – the government has been more focused on Brexit. So, it looks like it will be the responsibility of retailers, but I can’t tell every customer. Eventually I think the media will tell people about it.
MENTHOL BAN IN BRIEF: WHAT STAYS AND WHAT GOES?
– From 20 May the final regulations agreed as part of the updated EU Tobacco Products Directive (EUTPDII) come into force. Here’s what you need to know:
– The regulations apply to all flavoured tobacco, but in the UK this will have the biggest impact on menthol cigarettes. This represents 26% of the UK market and one-in-four cigarettes sold.
– Crushball, click and roll, dual menthol and click on cigarettes are also included as part of the ban. Filter tips and other menthol-flavoured non-tobacco products are not affected by the changes.
– Unlike with the introduction of plain packaging, there will be no sell-through period.
– Penalties for retailers selling menthol cigarettes after 20 May include a fine, up to three months’ imprisonment from a crown court or two years’ imprisonment from a crown court.
– The industry sees this as a huge opportunity for the vaping market, allowing smokers to continue to enjoy a menthol-flavoured nicotine product in a legal and less harmful way.
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