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by Dr Pete Cheema OBE
28 November 2023
Associate Feature: The devil is in the detail - retailers ask how a generational ban will work in practice

Dr Pete Cheema OBE, Chief Executive SGF

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Associate Feature: The devil is in the detail - retailers ask how a generational ban will work in practice

A week is a long time in politics, so the saying goes, and so it has proved. In October, it was mooted only a few days before the Prime Ministers conference speech, that the UK Government was considering new policy introducing a generational smoking ban and, just a few days later, that’s exactly what was announced.

Throughout the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, Scottish convenience stores have been a fourth emergency service, providing key lifeline groceries and highly valued services. They not only remain local community assets for all their loyal customers but also provide local jobs and add a local multiplier effect which helps promote sustainable economic growth. Indeed, in Scotland there are 5,171 convenience stores employing over 49,000 people. 

It’s no surprise the Prime Minister’s announcement has raised some concerns about implementation. Careful consideration will be required about how such a ban will work at an operational level, in-store. Otherwise, it could lead to some worrying unintended consequences.

Customers of all ages will be required to carry identification and be prepared to show it, despite having purchased the same product for years or decades, without any trouble. 
Likewise, signage and customer notices will need to be updated regularly to keep up with the ban. This will result in mixed messages within store as most age restricted items, such as alcohol, will continue to require 18+ signage. 

Meanwhile, retailers are legally required to record staff who are under eighteen and may sell age-restricted products they cannot buy themselves, such as cigarettes. If we follow the logic, a generational smoking ban raises the scenario where someone 28 years old, after 1st January 2037, may potentially need to be on record as able to sell cigarettes. Or fall foul of the law. At this point you start to see the challenges that retailers may need to consider.

Unfortunately, no one can avoid the terrible stories about the rise in retail crime. Staff now regularly face threats, violence, and abuse. Our latest Crime Report indicates that the biggest triggers for abuse are ‘refusal of sale’ and ‘asking for proof of age’. The statistics show that 100% of retail workers experience abuse on a weekly basis when a sale is refused, and 50% experience abuse on either a daily or weekly basis when asking for proof of age. 

It is therefore a legitimate question as to what impact a generational ban would have on staff and customer engagement. The operational aspects of this would need to be carefully thought through. On top of this, we need to take account of the fact that police and courts are under a huge amount of pressure and unable to deal with the caseload they have.

The illicit trade in tobacco continues to be an issue in Scotland and therefore the onus will be on enforcement agencies to ensure that, should any generational ban be introduced, they are proactive in dealing with any escalation of this problem. Our governments will, however, need to ensure that these agencies are resourced appropriately to deal with this. 

While the UK is experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, the temptation for some members of the public to buy illicit products could be an attractive one, which then leads into other issues where buying such products strengthens the criminal gangs that are selling them in the first place.

That is why SGF have launch our own campaign ‘Healthier Choices, Healthier Communities’, which is about finding the right balance. Helping to create public policy which simultaneously encourages adults who wish to quit smoking to use healthier alternatives while also recognising the role of enforcement agencies, government, wholesalers and retailers in ensuring that the trade is fully compliant and discourages younger people from using nicotine products. 

Given the potential operational challenges faced by the policy, perhaps the government should look at the generational ban alongside the possible alternatives that have been suggested, such as raising the age of sale to 21?  

Whatever the result, the government must ensure that as part of its consideration and future actions around a generational ban, that those expected to enforce and adhere to it, such as enforcement agencies, convenience retailers and shop staff, are front and centre in their thinking as to how it would be implemented in practice.

This article is sponsored by Scottish Grocers' Federation (SGF)

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