Retail lobby should butt out

Russell Zimmerman, head of the Australian Retailers Association, is a passionate advocate for the retail sector and a man who had dedicated himself to sticking up for a sector that has done it tough in recent years.

But his reaction to the High Court’s decision to dismiss big tobacco’s challenge against the Federal Government’s plain packaging laws is just plain silly.

Within hours of the decision being handed down by the highest court in our land, Zimmerman had whipped out a press release warning that jobs were on the line because it would take small retailers longer to locate their right cigarettes for their customers.

“Retailers now face the costs of plain packaging transactions which will see a significant increase in the time taken to complete a transaction as all products will be near identical. Transaction time increases are estimated to cost businesses up to half a billion dollars, which is the equivalent of 15,000 jobs,” he said in his statement.

Half a billion dollars and 15,000 jobs? Really?

The ARA’s release doesn’t attribute those figures, but if they are the same ones quoted by the tobacco company-funded group the Alliance of Australian Retailers, then there’s a real problem.

Research for this group, conducted by Deloitte, suggested that individual retailers would lose up to $34,000 in lost efficiency because staff would spend an extra 45 seconds looking for the right pack of smokes.

But it was heavily criticised West Australian academic Professor Owen Carter, who claimed the report was based on consultations with just six retailers. His own research, based on 5,000 simulated purchases, found transaction times would be reduced because “people rapidly learnt where each pack was located regardless of whether it was plain or colour”.

Sounds like common sense to me, I’ve got to say. A fair bit more believable than the idea that individual retailers could lose $34,000 in “efficiency”.

I have some sympathy for Zimmerman’s complaint that retailers have had to invest in shop fittings to meet state government bans on keeping cigarettes on display. As he says, the plain packaging laws could have made those no-display laws redundant.

But I take real issue with his argument that there is only one winner from the plain packaging move.

“At the end of the day no one wins from plain packaging tobacco except the criminals who sell illegal cigarettes around Australia,” Zimmerman said. “The lack of branding on tobacco products will give people further incentive to purchase unregulated illegal tobacco products, which due to excessive taxation are up to half the price of legal cigarettes.”

Wrong, Russell. The other people who win are the customers of your retailers.

If plain packaging can further reduce smoking rates, their customers will be healthier for longer. They’ll live longer. They’ll spend longer.

I know retail lobby groups have benefitted from tobacco company sponsorship and I know these groups must represent the views of their members.

But retailers aren’t divorced from the communities they serve. They know cigarettes are bad for the health of their customers. They know it is for the good of society if we reduce smoking rates.

So come on guys, get realistic. Plain packaging of cigarettes doesn’t mean you have to stop selling smokes. And it won’t mean the sudden loss of hundreds of millions of dollars or thousands of jobs either.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.

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