Tobacco products display ban: Singapore retailers comply early but fear business impact

Gabriel Choo
A smoking cabinet at a FairPrice supermarket. (Photo: Gabriel Choo/ Yahoo News Singapore)

The ban on the display of tobacco products in retail outlets took effect on Tuesday (1 August) but many supermarket chains and provision shops were ready to comply way ahead of the deadline.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) first announced the ban in December 2015 as part of the proposed amendments to the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act. The ban applies to all types of tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars and beedies.

Many supermarkets have progressively installed cabinets with sliding doors to store tobacco products from as early as June. The cabinets are typically plain-looking and found behind cashier counters. All 137 FairPrice stores that sell tobacco products have been installed with such cabinets, a FairPrice spokesman told Yahoo News Singapore.

As of last week, PRIME and Sheng Siong had installed similar cabinets in more than 90 per cent of their stores with the remaining stores becoming compliant a few days before the ban kicked in. 7-Eleven has introduced cabinets with an auto-close mechanism to store tobacco products. Featuring grey or white opaque doors, the cabinets have been installed in all 400 7-Eleven stores across the island.

All cashiers and store managers at FairPrice, PRIME, Sheng Siong and 7-Eleven have been briefed by their respective companies on the ban and the use of the new cabinets.

Smaller retail stores, such as provision shops, were less prompt in complying with the ban. Shehabudn, 57, who owns a mama shop with his wife in Tampines, told Yahoo News Singapore that they did not intend to get any “special cabinet”.

Instead, they are placing the tobacco products on the same shelves that they have been using all the while, and covering them with a grey plastic cover with black velcro strips. The covers had been provided by a supplier of tobacco products.

“It acts like a curtain. There’s no point spending money on a cabinet just because of a new ban,” Shehabudn said.

Mr Shehabudn’s wife showing how her mama shop will be covering up tobacco products.  (Photo: Gabriel Choo/ Yahoo News Singapore)

Business likely to be affected

Retailers of tobacco products also have to adjust their selling process given the display ban. They can only use a text-only price list to inform their customers of the tobacco products on sale. Some retailers told Yahoo News Singapore that business could be affected as such.

Lamenting on the new measure, Shehbudn said, “Smokers don’t really know the (specific) product name, they only remember how the package looks like. If we cover up the cigarettes and only give them a price list with no pictures, it is not going to work. We might lose business.”

Crispian Leong, Head of Marketing at 7-Eleven, also forecast weaker cigarette sales because of the slower turnaround time. “The transaction time is longer because customers have to describe in detail which tobacco brand they intend to purchase, instead of previously pointing it out to our store staff,” said Leong.

Wendy Sim, 32, a cashier who works at a 7-Eleven outlet in Hougang, said she noticed a dip in the number of people who had bought cigarettes when the cigarette cabinet in the outlet was already in place before the ban came into effect. “The whole process of buying cigarettes has become less convenient, even for cashiers,” Sim said.

A cigarette cabinet at a 7-Eleven store. (Photo: Gabriel Choo/ Yahoo News Singapore)

Will display ban help curb smoking?

The reactions from retailers and smokers were mixed on whether the display ban would be effective in getting people to quit smoking. The ban may deter new smokers but the impact may not be significant for existing smokers, according to a PRIME spokesman.

Lai Jia Wen, a 26-year-old smoker, felt the ban would not influence him to curb his habit. “If I want to smoke, I will still buy cigarettes. Just because I can’t see it, doesn’t mean I won’t buy it,” he said.

A FairPrice spokesman said the supermarket chain supports the government’s efforts to “progressively de-normalise tobacco use and reduce (its) exposure to non-smokers”.

Polytechnic student Wilkin Ng, 19, said it is a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. He added, “If I were (planning) to buy cigarettes and don’t see them on display, the purpose of hindering cigarette sales would be quite useful.”

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