Comment: A newsagent who’ll be fine with plain packs

By John McClurey

In the three decades I have been selling tobacco, attitudes towards smoking have done a dramatic about-turn. They have moved from a climate where nearly everyone smoked to one where there is more awareness of the harm it causes and the reasons why people start in the first place.

In that 30 years behind the counter, I have seen how the marketing tactics of the big tobacco machine works. That’s why I feel it’s so important to present a balanced view on the subject of plain packaging, and lay to rest some of the scare tactics the tobacco industry is unfairly presenting to my colleagues in the trade.

Let me say now, I am certain that the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco products would reduce the appeal of eye-catching tobacco brands and help lower the temptation for more children to start smoking.

I have seen the new packs that come in and the way they attract children. I know the pressure shop keepers are under to give prominent display space to leading brands. I also see the way 'price promotions' work alongside the branding to keep even the most hard up customers hooked.

For tobacco, as with any other type of product, bright, attractive packaging makes people more likely to try or buy and view it in a positive way. The tobacco companies know this very well. And in terms of the market, there is a need to replace all those smokers who quit or die every year with new customers.

Currently if children see a packet of cigarettes behind the sweet counter or in someone’s hand they see bright innocent colours, glamorous designs and distinctive holograms – all of which appeal to children to make them think that smoking is a normal or cool thing to do.

Plain, standardised packs on the other hand would just appear as the basic product in the most unattractive colours possible. They would remove overnight certain brands’ status as cool, healthier or chic. A plain pack is, if you will forgive the pun, one that more young people won’t want to be seen dead with, as well as making health warnings stand out more.

Even with the term “low tar” now banned, many smokers still think whites, silvers or menthols are better for them. Decisions are made believing these cigarettes are lower tar, lower harm, and the next best thing to quitting. While I don’t expect plain packs to have a dramatic impact on adult smokers, I suspect it will act as a trigger for those already thinking about quitting and help quitters stay quit.

The tobacco industry is using the same tired arguments against plain packaging as with smokefree law – namely that it would have a major impact on small businesses like me.

This is not the first time myself and my retailer colleagues have been fed a constant stream of tobacco industry scare stories, from front groups and via the trade media, in which doomsday was predicted for small retailers at any measure to cut young people smoking. This is not only misleading, it is downright unfair.

I don’t believe for a second that this is a slippery slope and that I will be selling chocolate bars or crisps in plain packs in years to come, as the tobacco companies are claiming. Unlike sugary snacks, which are fine in moderation, tobacco is an addictive product that kills half of long term smokers. We have had restrictions on tobacco for decades and I’m yet to see these imposed on other products.

Plain packs would cause no confusion or extra costs for small businesses like mine. It’s no more difficult selling a plain pack than a branded pack. We’ve already coped with the industry trend for cigarettes to be sold in one colour, such as whites or blues, and have managed to cope with that quite well. We would cope with plain packaging too. One study by an Australian University found it would actually reduce serving time…

Neither am I convinced that plain packs will lead to a massive increase in illegal tobacco. Smokers who don’t want to quit will still come in and buy their usual brand with little more than a quick glance, and I will know where to find it.

In reality, most traders rely less and less on tobacco profits since the gross profit is so small. I make as much profit from a pack of chewing gum as a £6 pack of cigarettes. What my customers save by quitting or never starting to smoke, they can spend on other things. That means more money into the local economy.

Of course we will see a reduction in retail tobacco sales over time as smokers who die are not replaced by so many youngsters taking up the habit. But shops will have time to adapt. My role as a retailer is to evolve my business so that I continue to supply what my customers want in a changing world.

Earlier this year I presented these arguments to the all party parliamentary group on smoking and health. My views have made me unpopular with some of my colleagues, but my position as a local councillor means that I am in the fortunate position of being aware of more of the evidence, and not just the information the tobacco companies feed me.

Retailers are at the heart of their community. They get to know their customers and their families and it is good business to have their interests at heart.

I want to see the people who come in to my shop and in my community thrive from healthy children into healthy adults and be customers for years. I would much rather sell birthday cards than sympathy cards.

John McClurey is an independent newsagent who owns a shop in Newcastle upon Tyne and is a Liberal Democrat member on Gateshead Council.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.