Why are we asking this now?
Yesterday, the Department of Health published a "Consultation on the Future of Tobacco Control" which recommended that cigarette displays at the point of sale in shops should be banned. Instead, packs should be sold from under the counter. The Health Secretary said: "Enticing multi-coloured displays encourage young people to start smoking – we must put a stop to this. Smoking is a habit which is hard to break and causes 87,000 deaths a year in England alone." The consultation, launched in April, was the biggest of its kind and received 96,000 replies.
What will happen next?
A health Bill containing the measure will be introduced early next year. Larger retailers would be forced to comply by October 2011 and small shops by 2013. The Government also wants age restrictions on the use of cigarette vending machines. In order to use the machines, smokers might be required to use tokens, or carry electronic identity cards.
Who is the Government targeting?
Under-age smokers. In 2007, official statistics suggest that almost 200,000 children aged 11 to 15 were regular smokers. A study by the British Heart Foundation estimated that 46,000 children bought cigarettes from vending machines in 2006. However, Simon Clark, the director of the smoking lobby group Forest, has already reacted angrily to the proposals, arguing that they will make life more difficult for all smokers. He says they are "designed to denormalise adults who wish to consume a perfectly legal product".
Will the ban work?
Ireland, Thailand and Iceland have all forced the sale of cigarettes under the counter, with some Australian and Canadian territories following suit. So far, however, evidence that the ban stops young people from smoking is mixed. The Department of Health argues that cigarette displays encourage unplanned purchases, increasing sales by between 12 and 28 per cent. It claims that a ban could reduce smoking among young people by as much as 10 per cent, but this figure does not seem to accurately reflect the experience of Iceland, for example, which introduced similar laws in 2001. There, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds who say they have smoked has remained constant at 30 per cent since 1994 – before the ban began.
What effect will a ban have on shops?
Potentially, rather a bad one. The cigarette trade is worth about £12.7bn a year to the economy, accounting for about 20 per cent of sales in convenience stores, with many other purchases made by customers who enter the shops to get their fixes. Retailers estimate that the cost of reorganising each shop to accommodate the legislation could be between £2,000 and £10,000.
How have shopkeepers reacted to the proposals?
They were angered by the announcement. Stephen Robertson, the director of the British Retail Consortium, said: "This will hit small stores, which lack the space and resources, particularly hard. The Government is right to try to stop children smoking but banning displays in shops is just not the way. It will impose thousands of pounds of pointless refit costs on stores, ultimately met by customers, and create delays and inconvenience for customers and staff.
"We supported last year's increase in the age for buying tobacco to 18 years old. Next April there will be tougher penalties for stores who break that rule. Enforcing existing and new regulations and stopping parents and older peers supplying tobacco to children is the real answer."
Ken Patel, the national spokesman for Responsible Retailers, a division of the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, runs a convenience store in Leicester and feels his business is under threat: "Thirty per cent of my turnover is tobacco sales," he said. "The impact of this law will be significant because it will reduce footfall. Smokers spend more money than any others in my shop. Without these sales I'll go bust."
What else do the retailers object to?
Mr Patel also believes the Government consultation did not include enough minority voices. He said: "Seventy thousand small shops are run by ethnic minorities but the consultation document was written in English. I have reported this to Trevor Philips [head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights] because I know there were retailers who did not understand the original document and so couldn't put their views across."
Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, has also expressed reservations about the impact of the ban, although the Government and anti-smoking groups state that no small shops have been forced to close as a result of bans in other countries, and point out that the costs to businesses can be minimal if handled correctly.
Who else might be affected?
Duty-free retailers at airport departure lounges are concerned about the potential loss of revenue. During the consultation, they told the health ministry that all their customers have passport or photographic ID, so under-age smokers cannot make purchases in any event. They also warned that if displays were removed, the majority of customers – particularly those who did not speak English – would believe that tobacco was not stocked. Duty-free retailers said their competitors were not domestic retailers but other airports. The ban on tobacco displays would therefore damage their sales.
Do the proposals go far enough?
Anti-tobacco pressure groups such as Action on Smoking (Ash) and Cancer Research UK both want ministers to go further and announce a complete ban on vending machine sales of cigarettes because, they claim, 14 per cent of under-age smokers buy tobacco from them. They point out that 90 per cent of respondents to the Government consultation preferred an outright ban on tobacco vending machines. They describe the current plans as a "half-baked measure" which will do "little or nothing to reduce under-age smoking, while incurring additional costs to vending machine manufacturers".
What other policies could the Government pursue to reduce under-age smoking?
Almost all of the people, 98 per cent, who took part in the Department of Health consultation process felt that the packaging of tobacco products should be plain, denoting nothing more than the brand – rather than complex marketing information. This proposal was dismissed by the Government however, and will not be introduced. Ken Patel, meanwhile, thinks that the emphasis of the Government's proposals is wrong. He said yesterday: "I think the biggest problem is counterfeit tobacco, which is getting out of control. According to HM Revenue and Customs, the Exchequer loses £11m from counterfeit and smuggled tobacco from Europe. Also, there is still no law to prevent adults buying tobacco for children. I cannot refuse them and that's a big problem. I have three women who come in to my shop every day to buy cigarettes for their daughters. Proxy purchasing should be made illegal."
Will under-the-counter tobacco laws stop young people from smoking?
* Casual smokers, particularly young ones, are prompted to purchase tobacco products at the point of sale. The ban will remove that temptation.
* The ban prevents tobacco companies from using strong branding to lure customers.
* Similar bans have had success in other countries.
* An effective enforcement of age restrictions could work just as well.
* Results of a ban are mixed. Iceland, which introduced similar laws, has not seen a drop in the number of young people smoking cigarettes.
* Laws to prevent adults from buying tobacco for young people would be more effective.