Public policy as propaganda


Ken Patel of Responsible Retailers has posted a petition on the Downing Street website. I generally steer clear of online petitions, but I thought this one was worth adding my name to.

The government is proposing new rules to 'denormalize smoking' which mean that tobacco products cannot be displayed in shops (it would also ban cigarette machines in pubs, and much else). So the porn mags can remain in full view, as can the mentally corrosive The Guardian, but cigarettes, cigars, tobacco and snuff would have to be sold strictly 'under the counter'.

This proposal is daft on several counts. It won't change the habits of existing smokers – they will just go in and ask for their favourite brand anyway. Of course, if smokers wanted to wean themselves off the weed and choose a less strong tobacco, they'd have problems because they wouldn't know what was on offer, so that's a snag. And another snag is that where this sort of illiberal measure has been adopted elsewhere (Iceland, Ireland...) it seems to have had no effect at all on smoking rates. It's really just gesture politics, public policy as propaganda.

The real problem, of course, is that the large supermarkets and petrol stations will be able to afford the specialist counters and trained staff to put up with this regulation. Small shops – many of them already hit by the loss of their post office business, thanks Gordon – won't. So they will lose tobacco trade, and all the purchases that go along with people popping into the local shop, to the big stores.

Patel's petition says that instead of this retail disaster, the government should put its effort into proper enforcement of the law to prevent underage and illicit sales of tobacco to young people. Sounds sensible. If you agree, you can sign the petition here.