The words of ASH's Martin Dockrell—a say-anything anti-smoking zealot if ever there was one—feature prominently:
"The tobacco industry has tried to scare small shopkeepers into campaigning on their behalf, using them as a human shield," Dockrell said. "Their main tactic has been to promote the myth that putting point-of-sale displays out of sight somehow encourages smugglers but international evidence shows that to be false."
Er, no it doesn't Dockrell, you little tinker. Since Ireland and Canada have the worst tobacco smuggling problems in the world, there is a pretty good prima facie case for saying that display bans do lead to smuggling. But even if one questions whether this, in itself, proves that display bans lead to smuggling, it would be bonkers to say that this evidence disproves it.
What there can be no doubt about is that tobacco display bans do not achieve their intended aim of lowering underage smoking (which, one tires of saying, is already illegal). There is crystal clear evidence from every province of Canada that display bans have, if anything, had the opposite effect. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, having examined the evidence used by the previous government to justify a ban on displays of tobacco in shops, and said in opposition that they were opposed to the policy. Its pointless, they said. They were right. And since it will manifestly place an unjustifiable burden on small shops, there can be no justification for a piece of legislation that will uglify and Sovietise thousands of shops. It is the very definition of ‘bad regulation’—and that's before we even mention the basic liberty of displaying a legal product in a free society or the inevitable encouragement a display ban would give the temperance lobby which would love nothing better than to put alcohol out of sight as well.
Having pledged to review the measure if and when they won the election, the Conservatives, and Health Minister Andrew Lansley in particular, is being held to ransom by the anti-tobacco lobby who—having nothing new to say—are rolling out severely compromised individuals like Peter Kellner and indentured moral entrepreneurs like Martin Dockrell.
Why the reluctance to give up on a policy which everyone knows won’t do what it's intended to do, and will instead create a raft of other problems? The answer, surely, is that the powerful anti-tobacco lobby risks losing motivation and momentum over this displays debate. They’re scared that if just one of the measures on their agenda isn’t implemented then the whole tapestry will unravel. As long as professional anti-smokers are mistaken for health campaigners, politicians will continue to be nervous of displeasing them. But they should, because there are no votes to be gained from pursuing Labour's nanny/bully state and doing anything other than scrapping this stupid law will make a mockery of the coalition's claim to be in favour of scrapping unnecessary and illiberal legislation.
There is a lot of sympathy with the independent retailer—rightly so—and this has been a major, unforeseen stumbling block for the tobacco control lobby. At first, some initial effort was made to address the concerns of retailers. That was followed by a campaign to undermine retailers with a positively shameful attempt to skew the evidence about the impact this policy would have on small shops. There was even a protracted, fruitless search for a retailer who might stand up and make supportive noises that chime with those of the anti-tobacco lobby:
Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health attempt to drum up some support for the controversial ban. An e-mail from Elspeth Lee (to a number of unnamed recipients at the DH) illustrates how unpopular the measure is with retailers:
“The coalition is (still) trying to ﬁnd one or two supportive retailers who would be happy to show support in further oral or written brieﬁngs or even do more, but we are failing miserably. Someone today mentioned that DH might have some warmer contacts - are there any that we could follow up with?”
However, these “warmer contacts” turn out to be supermarkets who can expect to proﬁt from the disappearance of large numbers of smaller shops, as Lucy Holdstock explains:
“It’s the bigger chains who are not too fussed about this, at least in private. However, that could work against us as the criticisms are all about costs to smaller businesses.”
What we’ve seen this weekend is an attempt to simply airbrush retailers out of the equation. ASH, enabled by supportive (and lazy) hacks like Jamie Doward, present a picture of big tobacco companies fiercely lobbying the new government and forcing a U-turn on the strength of flawed evidence relating to the illicit market. Neither the letter from the four anti-tobacco campaigners in Sunday's Observer, nor Doward’s article, mentions the monumentous and unprecedented campaign by retailers and shop owners against these proposals.
Of course, few people will be surprised that ASH and their supporters are once again manipulating and misrepresenting a situation to achieve their own aims – after all, they’ve done it before. ASH Director Deborah Arnott boasted that, “Campaigning of this kind is literally a confidence trick: the appearance of confidence both creates confidence and demoralises the opposition.”
The government, even those members of the coalition who read the Observer, will not be so easily fooled this time around. Most MPs will no doubt have spoken to retailers in their constituency, concerned over the display ban; many MPs have looked into the evidence for themselves and concluded that there are far better, far more effective ways to prevent young people smoking than merely hiding it from their view when they go shopping. After years of bullying, cajoling and broken promises, a degree of bullshit fatigue must be setting in when politicians deal with groups like ASH.
So just scrap it already, and let's start talking about real issues.