Driving tobacco underground
Some countries have banned the display of tobacco products in shops. Instead of being on display, the products are hidden under the counter, or behind curtains or screens, making it hard for customers to know what is available. These bans are based on claims that displays encourage people to smoke – especially children – and also demotivate smokers from quitting.
In our view, there’s no clear evidence that display bans have any significant effect on smoking rates – either among children or adults. In Ireland, the first studies conducted after the introduction of the 2009 display ban suggested there was no observable change in adult smoking prevalence.
With tobacco products hidden from view, consumers may struggle to tell whether their purchases are legitimate or black market products.
For smaller retailers, display bans could mean being hit with potential refitting costs. It could also mean potentially losing out to larger competitors, as consumers might assume larger stores are more likely to stock their favourite brand.
Canadian retailers subject to a retail display ban report that transactions generally take longer, with increased risk of miscommunication and error by retrieving the wrong product for the customer. Shop workers also need to turn their back to the service counter for longer periods, increasing the potential for theft.
Display bans obstruct and distort free market competition among tobacco companies and their right to communicate with adult consumers about legally available products.
On a purely economic basis, display bans could even lead to increased consumption by encouraging adult smokers to choose products solely on price. A switch to a cheaper brand – or cheap illegal cigarettes – could result in people smoking more.
Instead of display bans, we’d like to see stronger enforcement of minimum age laws, harsher penalties for retailers caught selling tobacco products to underage smokers and legislation that makes it illegal for adults to buy cigarettes for children.