Barry Gardiner MP turned out to support his constituent Mahendra Jadeja at a north London business seminar last week and told retailers they were on the right track.
“To get the nation going again we need business to talk to business,” he said. “Think, create and innovate is the model for business. Think what your offer is, produce it and work to that pattern.
“Never think you have got the model. Constantly refine. The product that you were proud to present yesterday and last year should not be today’s. Today’s has to be better.”
This is all good stuff but it is what you want to hear from a consultant and not from your MP. What you need your MP to do is listen. Instead Mr Gardiner rushed off and missed the next speaker, from Philip Morris, who spelled out the regulatory risks threatening local shopkeepers.
Interestingly, Eoin Dardis started off by accepting that regulation was appropriate. “tobacco is a dangerous, addictive substance that needs to be regulated, ” he said. The danger is in the way it is carried out. It is disproportionate.
Only two years ago plain packaging was reviewed by the government and dismissed because there wad no evidence to support it. So why Mr Gardiner is Parliament reviewing this again? But, of course, he had left the building.
In the UK Philip Morris is a small player, with a 7 per cent share. Worldwide it is number one and challenging the way governments are regulating its industry. In Spain, it is cutting prices in a way that hurts industry profitability but also government revenues. In the Pacific, it is threatening to sue the Australian government for damages under trade agreements if a plain packaging law is introduced.
Most governments have signed agreements to refuse to talk to the tobacco industry for fear that it will influence their law making. this is hypocrisy as in most areas MPs happily water down regulation. The sunscreen industry, for one, is an area where misleading claims can cost lives. However MPs will listen to retailers.
The message on tobacco is urgent. There are two strands. One is that local shops do a good job of selling tobacco responsibly. This should be encouraged. The second is that industry margins need to be protected. If retailers had to borrow money to buy tobacco they would make a loss. A 6 percent margin is too tight and plans to increase duty by more than inflation may force local shops to close as they run out of cash to buy stock. It is compound interest in reverse. With £4 in every £5 spent being tax, the risk is substantial. But surely that is good if you no longer sell tobacco, your MP may suggest. Disabuse them. They are regulating local shops off the high street. And what about the smokers? They will buy ‘loosies’ from street sellers, unregulated and untaxed. Make sure your MP listens.