In August, the Finnish President signed a new law to end the display of tobacco products in the country’s shops. It’s a timely move and one that’s being mirrored across the world. Scotland, for example, is pressing ahead with its own law.
The Coalition Government in Westminster is considering whether to take this step, given the strong evidence that advertising encourages the take-up and use of tobacco, and that displays are a loophole in the tobacco advertising ban.
Two recent research papers by Cancer Research UK scientists further strengthen this evidence.
What do children think?
With Cancer Research UK funding, researchers Dr Crawford Moodie and Dr Abraham Brown have recently found that children see shop displays as cool, fun and attractive.
They conducted twelve focus groups with sixty-seven 11 to 16-year-olds, nearly half of whom were smokers. The purpose was to find which tobacco control measures they perceived as capable of actually having an effect, and which they considered less influential. The research was published in the journal Health Promotion Practice.
The researchers found that tobacco displays in shops were “obvious” because of the “massive display”. They appeared to be attractive to younger members of the group with one 13-year-old female smoker saying, “Cigarette displays in shops makes you think that it’s cool to smoke.”
This reflects the great effort the tobacco industry puts into point of sale displays; a recent snapshot of current practices in Nottingham and London shows that it pays for gantries in the great majority of shops and makes regular visits to check the display and inform retailers about new products or promotions. Sometimes the reps clean the display or re-arrange it and offer incentives to the shops.
In another promising example of how legislation can reduce smoking rates among children, a new study, carried out by Cancer Research UK’s Professor Robert West and his team at UCL, and published in Addiction, found that the number of 16- and 17-year-old smokers has dropped since it became illegal to sell cigarettes to under-18s.
This is the first study of its kind. More than 1,100 teens aged 16-17 were interviewed across England, before and after the new law was implemented in October 2007.
Researchers found the number of smokers dropped by a third, from around 24 per cent to around 17 per cent. Smoking rates among older age groups – over the age of 18 – were not significantly affected by the changes.
There are a variety of ways we can further reduce teenage smoking. Indeed, the Finns have gone further than banning shop displays of tobacco by also banning cigarette vending machines, which, in the UK, are still the easiest way for teenagers to buy cigarettes.
They’ve also made it illegal for under-18s to own tobacco products, and their new laws also mean that buying cigarettes on behalf of a child becomes an offence punishable by up to six months in prison. This targets one of the most important routes for teenagers to obtain tobacco, but is also the one that other governments have been wary of targeting with legislation.
Smoking is responsible for more than a quarter of cancer deaths so bold action is required. It is great to see the Finns taking steps – such as removing displays of tobacco in shops – that are necessary to reduce smoking rates.
Brown A, & Moodie C (2010). Adolescents’ Perceptions of Tobacco Control Measures in the United Kingdom. Health promotion practice PMID: 20421410
Fidler JA, & West R (2010). Changes in smoking prevalence in 16-17-year-old versus older adults following a rise in legal age of sale: findings from an English population study. Addiction (Abingdon, England) PMID: 20722633