Independent retailers are facing an increasingly difficult trading environment and shopkeepers in Scotland are not isolated from the sorts of issues confronting the rest of the UK. Retailers have been forced to adapt to layers of new legislation in recent years, from Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels. This is particularly the case for tobacco retailers, who have been the subject of a prolonged tobacco control agenda, which has weighed and continues to weigh heavily on small and independent shopkeepers.
In the past few years, regulation has prohibited the display of tobacco products, increased tobacco taxation above inflation in successive years and, from May 2016 (pending a legal challenge), will require tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging. Measures like this are not benign. They have a real impact on retailers up and down the country. The display ban, for example, has increased transaction times for many shopkeepers. It has also made a significant number of retailers feel less secure in their own shops. Above inflation tobacco tax increases drive up tobacco product prices and force hard-pressed smokers to search out alternative sources for their cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco, which are often illegal or, at the very least, not UK-based.
Legislation developed in Brussels will ban cigarettes sold in packs of less than 20 in May this year and hand rolling tobacco in pouches smaller than 30g will no longer be allowed either. This will have a real impact on retailers. Most of my customers who buy tobacco purchase products that fall into the categories that will be banned. They will have to find these products elsewhere. I am really concerned that they will find them in the illegal market.
When smokers choose to buy tobacco illegally or outside of the UK, it hurts small and independent retailers more than any other kind of retail business. We do not have the resources that big chains or supermarkets can draw on. We already know that in Scotland the illegal tobacco trade costs small and independent retailers around £20,000 each in lost sales every year.
Not all of the issues that Scottish retailers face are the result of actions taken in Westminster and by the EU. Some are home grown, right here in Scotland. In 2011, the Scottish Government introduced a registration scheme for all tobacco retailers, which increased the already sizeable bureaucracy involved in selling tobacco.
However, a some groups are calling for the introduction of a licensing scheme for tobacco retailers – like the one for alcohol. This would add another layer of regulation to a retail sector that is already over-regulated. What is more, it would do nothing to stop those traders that sell illicit and counterfeit tobacco, because they would not bother to apply for a licence in the first place. Put simply, a licensing scheme would be another nail in the coffin of small and independent shopss.
I would like to see the Scottish Government commission a full, independent assessment of the economic impact of these measures on the small and independent retailers who are so often the life blood of Scottish communities.
At the national level, the UK government could help Scottish retailers by scrapping the tobacco tax escalator. More tax on tobacco is neither wise nor prudent. In order to prosper, small and independent retailers need stability and legislators can help to foster a more settled environment for us by abandoning the policy of ever-increasing tobacco taxation.
• Cllr Mo Razzaq is Scottish spokesman of the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance, www.tralliance.org.uk