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File photo of a packet of cigarettes in a shop in Ireland. Alamy Stock Photo

Retailers claim safety of shop workers could be compromised by proposed increase in smoking age

One retailer told The Journal that he has “no doubt” that retail staff will be confronted if the legislation is approved.

RETAIL ASSOCIATIONS HAVE claimed that the Department of Health’s proposal to raise the legal age of sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21 will cause problems for staff members in shops and supermarkets. 

One organisation also questioned whether the legislation would still allow retail workers aged 18 or over to sell tobacco products, stating it would be “horrendous” for stores who employ people of that age if they could no longer do so. 

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly is set to ask Government to back the landmark legislation when Cabinet meets tomorrow. The move is aimed at reducing the number of people who smoke in Ireland.

According to the HSE, the number of smokers in Ireland has reduced from 27% in 2004 to 18% in 2023. The level of smokers in the country has remained unchanged since 2021, according to Healthy Ireland.

Taoiseach Simon Harris has backed the move, while Tánaiste Micheál Martin has described the proposed legislation as “significant” and said there must be “renewed efforts” to reduce smoking, particularly among young people. 

Vincent Jennings, the CEO of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association (CSNA), which has 1,500 members across the country, told The Journal that the organisation has concerns around the practicalities for retailers if the legislation is approved. 

“We haven’t been asked as an association our views or otherwise about this. We have written to the Department on a number of occasions and have sought meetings and haven’t been granted those,” he said.

He said staff members could have difficulty telling a 19-year-old or a 20-year-old that they can purchase alcohol and lottery tickets, but not cigarettes. This also raises concerns in terms of staff safety, he said.

“We’re all very aware that since Covid, people have become unbelievably aggressive and very, very prone to misogynistic and racist abuse of people, including in our stores,” Jennings said.

“This may well increase the difficulties for our staff, and we need assistance in that from the State. We need an understanding from them.”

Retailers recently told the Oireachtas Enterprise, Trade and Employment Committee that levels of crime, violence and anti-social behaviour towards staff were at an all-time high. 

Benny Gilsenan, a Dublin retailer and spokesperson for Retailers Against Smuggling, told The Journal that there is “no doubt in my mind” that retail staff will be confronted if the legislation is approved.

He gave an example of someone who is “under the influence” of alcohol looking to buy cigarettes and being told by a young staff member that they can’t do so due to their age. 

“They will say: ‘What do you mean you can’t sell me a packet of cigarettes? I’m an adult. You’ll sell me a packet of cigarettes or else I’ll go inside and take them’,” Gilsenan said. 

He said the legislation could be “the nail in the coffin” for smaller shops. 

“Small outlets that might only have one member of staff on at any time, who might be a young student. They can’t afford to be intimidated,” he said.

“They’ve college the following morning or the afternoon. The problem that they’re going to be confronted with is trying to talk to people who are older than themselves, that they are telling: ‘Sorry, I can’t sell you a packet of cigarettes.’”

Illegal cigarettes

CSNA CEO Vincent Jennings cited a recent Revenue survey, which found that over a third (34%) of cigarettes smoked in Ireland last year had no Irish duty or taxes paid on them.

Of those, 19% were found to be illegal, while 15% were legal but non-Irish Duty Paid. 

He questioned: “Are Revenue and Customs now going to be authorised and obligated to prevent 18, 19 and 20 year olds from accessing duty free and bringing it into the country? Or are we, the retailers, the only ones that are expected to police this law?” 

Gilsenan also referenced the illegal sale of cigarettes as being a much bigger problem than those that are being sold in shops and supermarkets. 

“That market is only going to rise and it’s going to raise at a phenomenal rate encouraged by laws of this nature,” he said.

We comply with all of the regulations that are required. We keep them behind closed doors. We will not sell to minors. Yet, I can walk less than 50 yards from my premises and I know five people who are actually selling illegal cigarettes.

“Until such time as [Government] bring in a proper law to deal with the illegal importation of cigarettes, it is not going to change and it is not going to have any effect on the overall sale of cigarettes.”

Age of staff

With the age of the buyer set to increase, Jennings said that it is an “absolute requirement” for the CSNA that if the legislation is changed, it would guarantee that people who work in retail stores who are aged 18 and over could still sell tobacco products.

“We would be most fearful that it would be the case that you couldn’t sell it unless you were 21,” he said.

“That would be horrendous for us because we rely hugely upon college students and people of that young age who are working in our stores and doing an absolutely essential and great job.”

Jennings said tobacco products still contribute “significantly” in terms of sales in many convenience stores, filling stations and supermarkets across the country.

“If you couldn’t have a young person behind the counter for that, then they couldn’t work with you anymore and that would cause real difficulty. There is a jobs glut at the moment that would only be feeding into that.” 

He called for the Department of Health to consult with retailers on the matter. 

“We’re parents, we’re grandparents, we’re part of the community. We understand the tragedy that befalls people who unfortunately get cancer and other illnesses from tobacco,” Jennings said.

“We will always work in line with the State and in line with our laws, but there has to be understanding that by this, there will be difficulties unless they talk with us.

“The Department of Health needs to bring us into the discussion. They don’t know everything, they’re not not expected to know everything. That’s why consultation and stakeholder discussions are so important.”

Smoking and second-hand smoking still causes almost 6000 deaths in Ireland annually.

Smoking-related deaths are mainly due to cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) and heart disease. Cigarettes contain over 4000 toxic chemicals, many of which are proven to cause cancer. 

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