Scottish Grocers’ Federation

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The Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF) is a trade association for convenience stores in Scotland.1 Its main website states that “The central aim of SGF is to work with policy makers and decision takers in order to help deliver policies that create the right trading environment for all involved in our industry”.2 SGF has campaigned against several public health measures, despite being a member of the Scottish Government’s Ministerial Working Group on Tobacco Control, “…a forum for the development of policy to reduce the impact of tobacco on Scotland’s health”3

Relationship with the Tobacco Industry

Image 1: SGF Gold Membership Benefits (screenshot from SGF website, May 2014)

SGF Members: JTI, Imperial, PMI, BAT and JUUL Labs

SGF is primarily funded through two types of membership: retail membership and corporate “supplier” membership. There are four levels of corporate membership: Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze. In 2014, Gold corporate membership was worth £9,999 per year (see Image 1).4

As of May 2023, SGF listed four tobacco companies as corporate members: Japan Tobacco International (JTI); Philip Morris International (PMI); British American Tobacco (BAT); and Imperial Brands. JTI was a Platinum Plus member; BAT, PMI and Imperial were Gold members.567 Other members include JUUL Labs and the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA, of which all these companies are members).5 Republic Technologies, which manufactures accessories for Roll-Your-Own cigarettes, including papers and flavour cards, is also a member of SGF.7

In 2012, when SGF had 37 corporate members (including Imperial, BAT and PMI), the total tobacco contribution accounted for 9.7 per cent of total SGF income derived from corporate memberships.89 The current proportion of tobacco contribution to SGF corporate membership revenue is unknown.

Despite significant corporate interests, SGF has stated in the past that “policy decisions, campaigning work and lobbying activities are wholly determined by our National Executive, which is comprised solely of our retail members. Corporate members are not represented on the National Executive”.10

Targeting Members of Scottish Parliament

In addition to lobbying (detailed below) the Federation has consistently worked to develop relations with members of the Scottish Parliament.

Secretarial Support to Parliamentary Group on Independent Convenience Stores

In September 2016, the inaugural meeting of the Cross Party Group on Independent Convenience Stores (ICS) took place in the Scottish Parliament. Pete Cheema and John Lee from the SGF spoke at the meeting with Cheema proposing Gordon MacDonald MSP as the convenor.11 The SGF provides secretarial support to the group.12 As of 2023, MacDonald remained the convenor and Luke McGarty was listed as group secretariat contact12

As of 2023, the ICS group had ten MSPs as members and member organisations include the Scottish Wholesale Association, which has tobacco industry members.12 According to the group’s website, it aims to “inform MSPs of the issues and challenges facing independent convenience stores and to highlight the contribution local neighbourhood shops make to Scotland’s communities.”12 It also states that the group invites “guest speakers to participate, including Scottish Government Ministers and officials.”12

Sponsors Community MSP of the year

As part of The Herald newspaper’s Scottish Politician of the year awards, SGF has sponsored the category of community MSP. Dr Pete Cheema OBE, chief executive of Scottish Grocers Federation, said: “We are proud to be sponsoring the Community MSP of the Year Award. This is the first time we have been involved as a sponsor and we are delighted to be associated with such a high-profile event.”1314

Lobbying on Tobacco Harm Reduction

Attempted to Set Up Parliamentary Group

In 2018, the SGF and PMI unsuccessfully tried to set up a Scottish Parliamentary Cross-Party Group (CPG) on Harm Reduction and/or e-cigarettes.15 Richard Lyle, Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP), was asked to convene the CPG due to his personal experience as a long-term smoker turned vaper. In 2017, the MSP had visited PMI’s Swiss Research and Development facility to be briefed about the company’s heated tobacco products, a trip paid for by the tobacco company.16

In April 2018, John Lee, SGF’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, wrote to Lyle explaining SGF’s interests in setting up the CPG:

“Whilst it goes without saying that we all support a reduction in smoking, there is no question that their replacement on the shelves with a less harmful alternative is good not just for the nation’s physical health, but also for the health of our sector”.17

He added:

“potentially E-cigarettes and reduced risk products could be a very important sales category for small retailers”.17

“Frustrated” that Tobacco Companies Could Not to be Involved

Lee’s letter to Lyle refers to an earlier discussion between Lee and Lyle about the role of tobacco companies in the CPG, stating that both had agreed, yet were “frustrated”, that it was “critically important that tobacco manufacturers are not included on, nor invited to, the proposed CPG”:17

“Whilst we are both frustrated that we cannot get all stakeholders around the same table to discuss an issue of such national importance, we are equally clear that many of the MSPs and organisations we wish to be involved in the CPG would not participate were ‘big tobacco’ to be involved”.17

Lee continued:

“We have shared with one another that we intend to continue to engage with those companies in separate dialogue recognising the role that they are playing in the provision of such new harm reduction technology in respect to scientific research alongside the widespread commercialisation of such products”.17

Public Relations Firms Engaged to Garner Support

Two Edinburgh-based public relations firms were engaged to gain support for the CPG proposal: Halogen Communications, which worked with PMI to oppose the Scottish Government’s plan to implement plain packaging,1819 and Message Matters, which counts SGF as one of its clients.20

Public records of the Scottish Lobbying Register document that PMI and Halogen Communications met with Lyle on 19 April 2018, to brief the MSP on “the latest developments relating to heated tobacco products, e-cigarettes and smoking harm reduction in Scotland and the UK”, and “to discuss the possible formation of a Cross-Party Group on vaping at the Scottish Parliament”.2122 Lobbying Register records also show that Message Matter’s Andy MacIver, on behalf of the SGF, met with Lyle that same date to discuss the CPG.23 It is unclear whether two separate meetings occurred, or whether PMI, Halogen, and Message Matters attended the same meeting with Lyle.

Lobbying Register records also suggest that Message Matters was responsible for generating CPG support from MSPs and public health organisations.2425

Yet in June 2018, the SGF and Message Matters abandoned the proposal to form a CPG on harm reduction in Scottish parliament, with Message Matters citing a reluctance of public health organisations to take part in the CPG.26

Lobbied Scottish Government Working Group in 2019

In June 2019, two SGF members, Peter Cheema and John Lee, were present at a Scottish ministerial working group on tobacco control.27 According to the minutes, Cheema and Lee lobbied for greater use of e-cigarettes (vaping), and specifically against proposed advertising restrictions for the products. SGF links to industry were declared, precluding the contributors from influencing policy development.27

At the same meeting, according to the minutes, SGF stated that HMRC’s track and trace system did not provide a consistent, effective system for retailers to report suspected illicit trade in tobacco.27 See below for more on SGF’s previous comments on illicit tobacco.

E-cigarette Event at SNP Conference

At the 2019 autumn conference of the Scottish National Party, Japan Tobacco International sponsored a fringe meeting called “Where next for vaping in Scotland?”.28 Dr John Lee was the chair and the speakers were Emma Harper MSP, a member of various cross party health groups, John Mason MSP from the ICS group (see below), Andy Morrison from New Nicotine Alliance. Doug Mutter from Edinburgh-based e-cigarette company VPZ , which has received loans from Philip Morris International, also spoke.29 Mutter is a director of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) which has tobacco company members.

Organised E-cigarette Round Table Event in 2021

In early 2021, SGF organised an online ‘round table’ event in partnership with Holyrood Magazine, a publication covering politics and current affairs in Scotland. The event was titled “Vaping’s role in achieving Scotland’s 2034 Smoke Free target.”30 Public health organisations, including ASH Scotland, were invited. ASH Scotland declined to attend due to SGF’s links with the tobacco industry.30 The event took place on 12 February 2021.31

In early April a feature article appeared in Holyrood Magazine, sponsored by SGF, the title prefaced by the phrase “Changing direction”.32 The article stated that SGF had “brought a number of experts and stakeholders together for a roundtable discussion to debate the concept of tobacco harm reduction, with a focus on the role of vaping.”32  The article named five MSPs as contributors: Richard Lyle from the Scottish National Party (SNP); Donald Cameron, the Scottish Conservative health spokesman; Brian Whittle, the Scottish Conservative party’s public health spokesman; the SNPs Emma Harper, at the time deputy convener of the Health and Sport Committee in the Scottish Parliament; and Richard Simpson, shadow public health minister for Scottish Labour.32

One contributor quoted in the article is Professor Neil McKeganey, a co-director of the Centre for Substance Use Research, which receives funding from PMI, BAT, Imperial Brands, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, and JUUL Labs.323334 Other contributors included Louise Ross, the vice-chair of the New Nicotine Alliance, and Mark Oates, listed as director of campaign organisation We Vape.32 Oates is a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute and founder of the Snus Users Association.3536

Opposed restrictions to e-cigarette advertising and promotion

From February to April 2022, the Scottish Government ran a consultation into whether new rules should be introduced to limit the ways e-cigarettes can be advertised and promoted.37 The SGF and the UKVIA both campaigned against any restrictions.38

Ahead of the consultation being announced, in November 2021, the SGF lobbied Maree Todd MSP, Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport. The Register recorded the lobbying was “to discuss Scottish Government proposals to consult on the promotion and marketing of Nicotine Vapour Products” and the SGF advised “the Minister that there should be no in-store point of sale restrictions placed on Nicotine Vapour Products.”39

SGF’s Head of Public Affairs, Dr John Lee issued a statement that acknowledged “a ban on in-store promotions would be bad for the businesses of our members” but added that the “proposals are unjustified” and that they would also be  “bad news for Scotland’s public health”.40

Commissioned surveys to support lobbying

The SGF had commissioned a survey from Diffley Partnerships, in 2021, which it used to argue that e-cigarettes should be “properly positioned to help Scotland meet its smoke-free target” and that convenience stores should be involved “in the massive effort needed to switch smokers to vaping.”41 The SGF commissioned a further survey from Diffley Partnership, which was published in July 2022, which it again used to urge the involvement of convenience stores to “make Scotland smoke free by 2034.”4243

Diffley Partnership’s other clients include the Scottish Government, Obesity Action Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority.44

Campaigned Against Tobacco Plain Packaging

Image 2: Media Messengers, PMI Corporate Affairs Update, 2012

In May 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) introduced plain packaging legislation. The SGF was one of several trade associations that actively opposed plain packaging legislation proposals in the UK.

PMI Identified SGF as a “Media Messenger”

Leaked 2012 PMI documents reveal that the tobacco company planned a multi-faceted campaign to oppose the government’s proposal to introduce plain packaging.45 As part of its strategy PMI outlined key third-party “messengers”, seemingly independent third parties like retail groups, business associations, think tanks, anti-counterfeiting groups, researchers and international organisations, to push its message in the media (see Image 2). One of the ‘Retail Media Messengers’ listed was the SGF.45

2012 and 2014 UK Consultations: Arguments Mirrored Those of Tobacco Industry

The SGF submitted detailed responses to the 2012 and 2014 UK public consultations on plain packaging.81046 In its submissions, the SGF claimed that its nearly 2,000 retailer members employ approximately 32,000 people across Scotland, with annual sales in excess of £3.2bn.810 It added that “Tobacco constitutes an important part of this economic output accounting for approximately 21 per cent of turnover for the average convenience stores with profits ranging from 5% (economy brands) to 8% (premium brands)”.

One key argument against plain packaging voiced by the SGF in both submissions was that the policy would make it easier to counterfeit tobacco products, which is also an tobacco industry argument against plain packaging. In its 2012 submission to the UK consultation, SGF claimed that illicit trade “which is more prevalent in lower income, price sensitive and disadvantaged areas – will drive smokers out of legal and responsible premises selling regulated products to an illegal, irresponsible and unregulated market”.8 The SGF further claimed that the world-wide illicit trade was growing and within the European Union had increased from 2007 to 2010, a claim not supported by UK data from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) which showed a decline in illicit trade of cigarettes between 2003/4 and 2011.47

SGF’s other arguments against plain packaging also closely mirrored those promoted by the tobacco industry:

  • The evidence base supporting change is neither robust nor unequivocal;
  • Packaging is not why young people smoke, the reasons are more deep rooted and more intractable: family background and socio-economic situations are far more significant than brand awareness;
  • Smokers will down trade to cheaper brands, which will lead to a loss of profits;
  • Cross-border shopping will increase among those who wish to continue smoking branded products;
  • Legality of plain packaging is unclear.
  • Transaction times will increase because packaging will have fewer distinguishing features. Note: a simple study conducted by Australian researchers found that similar claims made by the Alliance of Australian Retailers when opposing plain packaging in Australia were likely to be incorrect48;
  • Plain packaging will make cleaning, replenishing and stocktaking more arduous thereby requiring additional resources form retailers to compensate. Note: This argument has been refuted in a research letter published in the BMJ49; and
  • Not enough time has been given to allow other legislative and price-based tobacco control measures to take effect.

Tobacco industry arguments were supported by evidence that was either funded by them, or not actually relevant to plain packaging.50 Click here for counter arguments.

Image 3: BAT UK Consultation submission cites support from SGF that plain packaging is burdensome (Source: Talking Retail, Independent Newsagents fear boost to illicit trade from plain packaging. 16 April 2012)

SGF Cited in BAT’s Submission to Plain Packaging Consultation

In its submission to the 2012 UK Consultation on plain packaging, BAT argued, among other things, that the policy was an example of Burdensome over-regulation.51 The company argued that retailers had already suffered the significant costs of compliance with point of sale display ban regulations and that plain packaging legislation would require retailers to spend even more on training and security to comply with yet another type of regulation. To support its ‘burdensome’ argument BAT cited a quote from the SGF (see Image 3).

SGF Submitted Evidence to Chantler Review

In November 2013, the UK Government announced that it had commissioned pediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler to review the most recent evidence for plain packaging. In its submission to the Chantler Review, the SGF reiterated many of the tobacco industry arguments against plain packaging, including that the policy would breach intellectual property of the tobacco companies, and increase the threat of illicit tobacco trade.52

Like the tobacco companies, the SGF attacked the independent scientific review, commissioned by the Department of Health, which had systematically reviewed 37 studies that provided the evidence base for plain packaging. It also criticised an Australian peer-reviewed study carried out by the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, which showed that after the introduction of plain packaging some smokers had “perceived their tobacco to be of lower quality and less satisfying” and were thinking about quitting.52

Opposed Tobacco Display Ban

In 2010, SGF called the Scottish proposed tobacco display ban as “the most inflexible and burdensome approach in the world”, calling it “ineffective”.53

Ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections, in 2011, the SGF attempted to mobilise retailers to put pressure on MSPs to drop the display ban.54

Relevant Link

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