A spokeswoman denied the move was prompted by moral concerns, saying it was the result of a review of sales of the 1,500 magazines it stocks. Penthouse, Mayfair, Playboy and For Women were among the poorest performers. Customers will still be able to order the magazines to arrive within a day or so at the shops, and they would still be sold in WH Smith concessions at stations and airports. "We have to make a decision about what we have got room for ... we try to make room for the ones that sell best," the spokeswoman said. "It's nothing to do with ethics. If it was, then we would have taken them out of all stores.
"Our policy is very much that if people want to read something we make it a available. We don't make judgments about what people should and should not read." The review is a regular feature at WH Smith, which has continually to reassess the performance of titles. Last year 350 new magazines came on to the market, and its 450 high-street shops have run out of space to display them all.
As a result, the company said yesterday, 269 titles, including the "top- shelf"magazines, would be dropped. The others were mostly specialist or trade titles. "Some of those sold as little as three copies," the spokeswoman said. "The suggestion that all the top-shelf are going is misleading. That section has been being dropped for a period of time - we used to stock a lot more. Those four have clung on, if you like, but they have now slipped to the bottom of the list."
Yesterday different explanations were being offered for WH Smith's move. One is that research has shown customers at its high-street outlets are predominantly women or families in the 25-45 range - not natural readers of such magazines. Others said the move was, in spite of the company's claims, due to moral considerations.
Ruth Corbett, who edits For Women, a monthly Playboy-style magazine aimed at women, said: "I feel very cross about this. It's rather silly in this day and age. It seems they are on some sort of moral crusade.
"They're probably saying there's no demand but we think there's a huge demand for the magazine. We have letters arriving every day asking us where the magazine can be bought."
Ms Corbett added that WH Smith was hypocritical in its attitude. It was happy to stock erotic novels for women, which have been soaring in popularity recently.
"Women are reading those books on the Tube, which you'd never have seen in the past. But at WH Smith, when it come to showing pictures of men showing all their bits, rather than just text, they don't like it."
Others speculated that the move was also triggered by the new trend toward heavily sexual, but "respectable" men's magazines such as Loaded and FHM. The trend for laddish titles has seen their circulations soar in the past couple of years.
The Internet also increasingly offers an accessible outlet for soft and hard-porn, with services which allow users to watch models stripping on- screen in obedience to typed instructions (and a hefty payment). Soft- core pornography is also available on cable and satellite services.
Carl Snitcher, the chief executive of Paul Raymond Publications, which publishes Mayfair, said he was not overly concerned by WH Smith's decision, however, because it would be unlikely to affect circulation.
"We would have preferred it hadn't happened, but it will not have a substantial effect on our magazine because only about 1 per cent of our total sale is through high-street stores."
But Comag, the UK distributors of Playboy, said they were surprised by the magazine was being dropped, because it was now being marketed as a lifestyle title. "If you compare it to FHM or Loaded, there's probably the same amount of nudity in it," a spokeswoman said. "It's even more odd given the huge success of Playboy in southern Ireland, where it launched a year ago after being banned for 36 years. Sales there now make up 45 per cent of total UK sales."
Mayfair "Well over 100,000"
(will not give more precise figures)
GQ 131, 074
For Women 60,000
Penthouse (94/95) 65,000Reuse content