Tobacco Retailers' Alliance

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The Tobacco Retailers' Alliance (TRA) is a tobacco industry funded campaign group, representing UK independent retailers selling tobacco. Until May 2008, it was known as the Tobacco Alliance (TA).

The TRA's website says it is a "coalition of 26,000 independent shopkeepers who all sell tobacco products" and adds that it is "funded by the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association which means we can offer a free membership to all independent retailers who sell tobacco. We campaign on issues of relevance to both their businesses and to the industry".[1]

Not only is the TRA funded by the TMA, the two are housed within the same building,[2] and the TRA’s website was registered by the TMA.[3]

In the financial year 2000/1 the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (TMA) budgeted to spend £180,000 on the group, but forecast that the actual spend would be £190,000.[4]

TRA has been represented by the public relations (PR) companies PR21 and its sister company Edelman.[5]

Policy Positions and Campaigning

Against a Tobacco Retail Display Ban in Shops

The TRA is opposed to a ban on retail displays of tobacco in shops. Spokesperson Ken Patel said: "This measure will placed [sic] a terrible burden on small businesses like mine, and there is no evidence to suggest it would have any positive impact on youth smoking rates."[6]

Save Our Shops - Lobby Campaign Funded by the Industry

In 2008, the TRA launched ‘Save Our Shops’, an initiative where the TRA provided shops with materials to run their own campaign in-store, and get customers to demonstrate their support. Customers could sign postcards which retailers would send on to their local MP, demonstrating public opposition to a display ban.

The campaign was large. MPs received hundreds of postcards bearing the Save Our Shop campaign logo, urging them not to back the government's proposals. The cards stated: 'As my local MP, I hope you will protect our independent local shops by opposing this proposal.' More than 100 MPs signed an early-day motion in Parliament agreeing with the proposal that any plan to sell cigarettes under the counter should be firmly 'evidenced-based', a key message pushed by the Save Our Shop campaign.

In December 2008, however, the Guardian exposed ‘Save Our Shops’ as an industry-funded campaign. MPs expressed dismay that the campaign had been orchestrated and funded by the tobacco companies, the paper wrote:[7]

"[M]any MPs had been unaware the campaign was the brainchild of the Tobacco Retailers' Association (TRA), an offshoot of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, which represents the interests of three tobacco companies: BAT, Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco."
"The Save Our Shop campaign did little to make its links with the tobacco lobby apparent and its postcards bore no reference to the connection between it and the cigarette manufacturers. The TRA, which also spoke out against the proposals, did not publicise its links with the manufacturers' body, although the latter's website carries a small reference to the connection between the two organisations."

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, accused the tobacco lobby of "hiding behind the cloak of retailer respectability."

Against Plain Packaging

According to the TRA, "Traders are concerned that a ban on branding will make life tougher for shopkeepers who sell tobacco without doing anything to reduce smoking rates."[6]

No To Plain Packs - Lobby Campaign Funded by the Industry

In May 2012 the TRA launched the ‘plain packaging postcard campaign’ in response to the UK Department of Health’s consultation on standardised packaging. ‘No to plain packs’ postcards were distributed to retailers who were then encouraged to send them to the Department of Health. TRA spokesperson John Abbott said that “it’s really important that independent retailers air their views on plain packaging through this consultation”, arguing that[8]:

"When we are serving customers, it will take much longer to find the product a customer wants if they are all in plain packs and look similar."
"Customers may also focus more on price if plain packaging is introduced and this will affect the turnover of retailers."

The TRA offered members arguments against plain packaging and also advised retailers on how they could respond to the consultation on its website. The TRA included its own submission to the consultation as an example.

Throughout the duration of the consultation, retail magazines such as the Grocer and Retail Newsagent consistently featured opposition messages to plain packaging and advertised the TRA plain packaging postcard campaign.

In July 2012, the TRA reported that 30,000 retailers had so far signed postcards, demonstrating how public consultations on tobacco control measures can be flooded with industry influenced opinion.[9]

In the Department of Health’s 2012 Consultation summary report the official number of postcards submitted was 26,530. The text read:

“I am a retailer who sells tobacco. I am opposed to ‘standardised’ packaging and support option 1 of the consultation: to maintain the status quo for tobacco packaging. Plain packaging would:
  • Fuel the black market in counterfeit and smuggled tobacco;
  • Make my customers focus more on price and affect my turnover;
  • Increase my transaction times and impact my customer service;
  • Be yet another burden on my shop in addition to the tobacco display ban.”

In 2013, BAT acknowledged it had granted funding support for the Tobacco Retailers Alliance postcard campaign via the TMA.[10] During the second consultation in 2014 the TRA submitted a further 10,001 “No to Plain Packs” postcards.

Following the government’s January 2015 announcement that it intended to proceed with legislating for plain packs before the forthcoming May General Election, the TRA’s national spokesman Suleman Khonat issued a statement

“This announcement is a hammer blow to the tens of thousands of small retailers across the country. We are already dealing with the negatives [sic] impact of measures such as the display ban but the evidence from Australia shows that plain packaging has led to an increase in smuggled and illicit tobacco. This will damage the incomes of legitimate businesses and make it easier for children to buy tobacco off street corners. Organised criminals don’t care who they sell to or how old they are. The government needs to rethink this decision if it cares about the future of local retailers and the communities they serve.”[11]

However, a Cancer Research UK report published in March 2015, in which 62 retailers were interviewed, revealed that although 81% of retailers believed that tobacco sales were essential to footfall in their stores, 94% acknowledged that the profit margins on tobacco products were low.[12]

Against Tobacco Smuggling

The TRA is emphatic that the illegal trade will profit most from plain packaging:[8]:

“When around one in every six cigarettes in this country is already illicit, the criminals operating out of tab houses and street markets, undercutting proper shops and not caring who they sell to, will be rubbing their hands in glee.”
“The TRA supports enforcement acting by Trading Standards to identify, fine and ban from selling tobacco those shops and retailers who do not take proper precaution against selling to minors.”

Against the EU Tobacco Products Directive

When the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive was discussed in Brussels in 2013, a TRA Magazine press release once again argued that such regulation would lead to an increase in illicit trade.[13]

According to the press release a TRA survey found that:

“one in six corner shops (17%) in the UK are under threat due to lost sales from tobacco smuggling and cross-border shopping. The figure is up from last year when the survey found that one in eight corner shops (13%) were under threat.”

The TRA also discussed the European debate on banning certain ranges of tobacco products from retailers’ shelves including packs of cigarettes under 20, packs of loose tobacco under 40gms, menthol cigarettes and “slim” cigarettes, as well as dramatically increasing the size of health warnings.

The TRA cited Debbie Corris, a Whitstable shopkeeper and then National Spokeswoman for the TRA, who said:

“If the EU bans these products, it will play in to the hands of the smugglers who will happily be able to provide them to anyone that wishes, no matter what their age. This will affect the livelihoods of independent retailers across the UK and ensure that the criminal activity of tobacco smuggling blights our communities for years to come.”

Direct Lobbying Activities - 2013

In 2013, the TRA paid the Liberal Democrats thousands of pounds for an exhibition stall expressing "relief" that the government dropped plans for plain packaging and arguing against the proposed Tobacco Products Directive. One leaflet stated "It was a great relief … that the government has decided to wait on making any decision on plain tobacco packaging until evidence on the effects it has had in Australia is available. However, now is no time to sit back!"[14]

Direct Lobbying Activities - 2011

The political party conference season is one of the busiest times in the TRA's calendar. In 2011, the TRA team went to the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservative conferences, and also to the SNP conference. The report on the tour in the TRA Newsletter reads as an overview of those MPs and party-members responsive to direct lobbying.[15]

Liberal Democrats

Those who stopped by the stand at the LibDem conference included Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (and MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch); Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills (and Strathspey and Twickenham MP) and Stephen Gilbert, the MP for St Austell and Newquay. Ed Davey, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (and Kingston and Surbiton MP) also visited and his discussion focused on the business side of retailing. Another visitor was the Deputy Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland.

Labour

"Solly Khonat raised the issue of the display ban with the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, himself!" The team also met with Camberwell and Peckam MP, Harriet Harman and with the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister and "rising Labour star", Chuka Umunna (MP for Streatham) and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Other "leading lights of the party" that stopped by the stall were the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls (MP for Morley & Outwood), Stephen Timms, the Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills (East Ham MP) and Shaun Woodward, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (MP for St Helens South and Whiston) The focus of the conversations was on the the effect of tobacco smuggling on local communities.

Conservatives

The TRA stand was "pride of place in the exhibition area and attracted numerous visitors over the four days" and Iain Duncan Smith the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Chingford and Woodford Green MP) stopped by.

Scottish National Party

Geoff Barrett, the Scottish TRA Spokesman (left) took part in a panel discussion held by CitizenCard, the UK’s leading proof-of-age scheme. The event was entitled: “No ID No Sale; “Guess their age and face a £10,000 fine”. Also on the panel were: Edinburgh Councillor Tom Buchanan; David McNeill of Young Scot; Gordon Robb from Highland Trading Standards; Janet Hood from the British Institute of Innkeeping; and Paul Waterson of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.

MP: Conflict of Interests?

In June 2009, then Labour MP for Tyne Bridge, David Clelland, was criticised by public health advocates for campaigning against Government plans to ban the display of cigarette packets in shops and newsagents without declaring a family link to a senior TRA lobbyist. The Sun newspaper reported that Clelland is the stepfather of Katherine Graham, who was the TRA's campaign manager. The MP told the newspaper that the family link had no impact on his views, and that he did not declare this link “because he didn’t want to give the impression he was raising issues in Parliament because his stepdaughter worked for the Tobacco Retailers Alliance”.[16]

Relevant TobaccoTactics Resources

Notes

  1. Tobacco Retailers Alliance website, About the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, undated, accessed 23 January 2012
  2. Personal Communication with Royal Mail PO Box Team, 23 January 2014
  3. register.com,Who Is Lookup, accessed 23 January 2014
  4. Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, Statement to Accompany Account Submitted to TMA Board of Directors, 20 February 2001, accessed 23 January 2012
  5. TMA Campaign Group, Minutes of meeting, 11 January 2001, accessed 23 January 2012
  6. 6.0 6.1 TRA, Retailers’ disappointment at Lansley’s back-track on display ban, undated, accessed 31 January 2012
  7. J. Doward, MPs fall foul of 'dirty' tricks by tobacco giants, The Guardian, 14 Dec 2008, accessed May 2013
  8. 8.0 8.1 TRA, Retailer Plain Packaging Postcard Campaign Launched, 11 May 2012, accessed 31 May 2012
  9. TRA, 30,000 shop staff against plain packaging, 2012, accessed August 2012
  10. Simon Millson, Group Head of Corporate Affairs for BAT, Letter to Deborah Arnott, ASH, 20 May 2013
  11. S. Khonat, Government takes decision to move ahead with plain packaging for tobacco products, Tobacco Retailers Alliance homepage, 22 January 2015, accessed March 2015
  12. R. Calder, S. Hitchman, C. Rooke, A. McNeill. Closing the doors on tobacco promotion: An assessment of small retailer preparations for tobacco point of sale display removal and longer-term tobacco disinvestment. March 2015. A report commissioned by Cancer Research UK
  13. TRA press release, One in Six Corner Shops Face Closure Due To Tobacco Smuggling and Cross-Border Shopping, 7 August 2013, accessed May 2014
  14. R. Mason, Tobacco Lobby group holds stall at Liberal Democrats conference, The Guardian, 17 September 2013, accessed September 2013
  15. TRA, Newsletter, November 2011, accessed June 2013
  16. C. Ford, MP David Clelland blasted over "smokescreen", Sunday Sun, 21 June 2009, accessed 31 January 2012