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Sale of Tobacco (Licensing)

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the sale by retail of tobacco and related goods; and for connected purposes.

In the Backbench Business debate last week the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), who I see is in his place, restated the Government’s commitment to making England smoke free by 2030. However, as he knows, we are not on track. Indeed, according to the most up-to-date data on smoking prevalence published by University College London, smoking rates have flattened since 2020. If the Government are serious about achieving a smoke free 2030, then the status quo is not sufficient.

Ratcheting up regulations and closing loopholes is crucial to any serious plan to support smokers in quitting and to prevent young people from starting to smoke. Requiring tobacco retailers to be licensed to sell tobacco would be a major step forward. That is not just my view; it is also the view of Javed Khan OBE, who recommended tobacco retail licensing in his independent review of smoke free 2030 policies earlier this year.

It has long been the case that to sell alcohol in England retailers must possess a licence, which is registered with their local authority. If a retailer breaks the conditions of the licence, for example by selling alcohol to someone aged under 18, their licence can be revoked, preventing them from selling alcohol legally and depriving them of revenue. That is crucial in helping to reduce under-age sales, as well as in preventing the vast majority of law-abiding retailers from being undercut by an irresponsible few.

Cigarettes, which are much more harmful and addictive than alcohol, require no such licence. Smoking killed around 78,000 people in England in 2020, while alcohol was directly responsible for around 7,000 deaths. Two thirds of those who try just one cigarette go on to become addicted daily smokers and the vast majority of those dying from smoking each year were addicted as children. The latest survey by Action on Smoking and Health found that 60% of child smokers buy their cigarettes from shops, yet there is no requirement for retailers to have a licence to sell tobacco, which kills its users.

This Bill would rectify that egregious gap in the regulation of retailers, meeting an important recommendation in Javed Khan’s independent review into making smoking obsolete. He recommended that a retail licensing scheme should be rolled out nationally and administered by local authorities. The cost of the licence should be determined by each local authority, with a national minimum set.

Javed Khan also recommended that criminal retailers who break the regulations or fail to carry out age verification should lose the tobacco licence for their premises. Any loopholes for transferring licences to new names or to alternative premises should be closed. Selling tobacco without a licence must be an offence attracting heavy financial penalties, and local authorities must be able to attach public health criteria to the licence, such as prohibiting sales near schools, requiring the sale of less harmful alternatives and displaying stop smoking advice on retail premises.

Those recommendations all seem very sensible and I support them. Requiring tobacco retailers to be licensed could help to prevent sales to children and sales of illicit tobacco by giving local authorities greater powers to take effective action against those who do not adhere to the regulations. Retail licensing would also protect honest small businesses up and down the country, which sell only tax paid products to adults, but are undercut every day by those willing to sell smuggled tobacco to anybody who wants it—an illicit trade run by criminal gangs, with dishonest retailers acting as their conduit to the public.

This measure would be relatively simple to implement. Retailers are used to complying with alcohol licensing schemes and are already required to have an economic operator ID before they can trade in tobacco under tobacco tracking and tracing regulations. However, the current system is not designed to be used for enforcement at point of sale by trading standards, which is why further regulation is needed.

Retail licensing is the obvious back up to the tracking and tracing of cigarettes and would help to tackle the illicit trade in this country, which gives smokers access to cheap tobacco. Those who sell illegal tobacco have no compunction about selling it to children, so the illegal trade makes it not only less likely that smokers will quit, but more likely that children will start smoking.

Retailers are not anti-regulation; they know that good regulation can make their lives easier by ensuring a level playing field and protecting the health of their customers. That is why survey findings published last week in a new report from Action on Smoking and Health and the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, titled “Regulation is not a dirty word”, found that more than eight in 10 of local retailers support the introduction of a tobacco licence, backed up by mandatory age verification. Licensing is also supported by more than eight in 10 members of the public, with only 3% opposed.

Under the current system, stretched trading standards teams are left with few options for identifying and cracking down on retailers who repeatedly flout tobacco regulations. Retail licensing backed up by mandatory age verification would give councils a critical new tool for preventing under-age sales and illicit tobacco.

Currently there is only a voluntary scheme in place, Challenge 25—not a legal requirement, as it has been in Scotland since 2017. It is very unusual for me to praise Scotland, I know, but the system in Scotland is supported by over 90% of retailers. There is a range of ID that young people can use, including the UK’s national proof of age accreditation scheme, endorsed by the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs Council and the Security Industry Authority. Unlike in England, in Scotland retailers cannot get away with saying they did not realise someone was under age. Introducing the same system in England would make enforcement easier for trading standards.

The current system leaves councils with one hand tied behind their backs in the fight against illicit tobacco and under-age sales. To quote John Herriman, chief executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute,

“Trading Standards professionals deal with tobacco retailers every day, and we know that the majority of them are law abiding, and understand the need for increased enforcement to stop unscrupulous traders willing to sell cheap and illicit tobacco, and to sell to children. A mandatory licence to sell tobacco and age verification for anyone who looks under 25 would make it easier for trading standards to enforce the law, to the benefit of reputable retailers.”

I am sure hon. Members across this House will agree that it is time we caught up with our friends in Scotland. The Government should listen to retailers, to trading standards officers and to the public and get on with introducing these popular and sensible measures without delay.

Question put and agreed to.


That Bob Blackman, Mary Kelly Foy, Alex Cunningham, Dr Dan Poulter, Maggie Throup, Mr Virendra Sharma, Steve Brine, Liz Twist and Jim Shannon present the Bill.

Bob Blackman accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 December, and to be printed (Bill 187).