Tobacco products vanished from shelves June 1 as store owners across Quebec struggled to meet the demands of a new law that requires all smoke-related merchandise be kept from public view.
By the end of the year, all Canadians, with the exception of Newfoundlanders, will be seeing the change put into action in an attempt described by anti-tobacco lobbyists as a means to “de-normalize” the product and prevent children from being exposed to advertising.
Tobacco shops aren’t affected by the law, but all other tobacco dealers, like convenience and grocery stores, are. Forced to pay for the specialized cabinets out-of-pocket or sign contracts with tobacco companies that set “through-the-roof” quotas, local store owners are anxious to avoid the possible hefty fines for failure to comply with the law. For the first offence, they could be slammed with fines ranging from $300 to $2,000.
With Quebec’s 40 provincial tobacco inspectors dropping in on stores across the province, store owners around Montreal have been scrambling to cover up their tobacco products. Although some have already signed high-demand contracts with tobacco companies that enable them to get the expensive drop-panel doors installed on their pre-existing tobacco shelves for “free,” others weren’t able to meet the stiff quotas required of the contracts. Some store owners in Montreal are using cardboard and duct tape to cover displays, where others are using tarps and make-shift screens. Some have simply stashed all their boxes under the counter, out of view, leaving their shelves bare.
Big chains, like Couche-Tard, have installed sleek, matching shelves that easily comply with the new regulations where other, privately owned stores, are having a tougher time catching up.
Some places have yet to cover their products fully but, as long as they can prove they have new coverings on order, government officials have said they won’t be going straight for the jugular – yet. At first, business owners will be given the chance to prove compliance, by providing inspectors with copies of order forms that show they’ve ordered new shelving, according to the Quebec’s Health Department’s public-relations official, Hélèn Gingras. However, Gingras has said this “certain amount of flexibility” has no specific time limit.
Many local owners, forced to cover up one of their highest selling products, are struggling to understand a new law which comes at a cost to their business. They have a choice: they can either sign stiff contracts with tobacco companies that will install the shelves for them or they can pay to hide the products themselves. Neither option is easy, according to Jimmy Rovolis, owner of Marché Cosmopolitan on rue Stanley downtown. The law, he says, is expensive.
“We pay so much taxes and they still always find a way to screw us,” said Rovolis, “It’s a pain in the ass. I find it very ridiculous.”
Rovolis, who opened his store less than two years ago, said he put all his tobacco products under the counter at the beginning of May to help get his customers used to the change. He may eventually build some sort of cabinets behind the counter but, being a relatively new business, he doesn’t have the money for that now. Bringing in a cabinet maker to build customized shelves, he said, is expensive.
“I’m trying to keep my costs low,” he said. “I can’t spend that kind of money. Maybe eventually but, for now, I’m still in the beginning stages of starting my business.”
The fact that he has to pay to cover-up the products is one of his biggest gripes with the new law, he said, suggesting the multi-billion dollar tobacco companies would be better suited to handle the cost themselves by doing something like simply taking the logos off the front of packaging. Blank boxes, he said, would take the advertising from view and wouldn’t cost him anything. Rovolis has the option of signing a contract with tobacco companies and getting them to pay for the installation of shelves, but then he’d have to meet pricey quotas that, he said, go beyond his means.
Already paying up to $10,000 a month for tobacco products, Rovolis said he checked out the contracts and found that he might not be able to meet the demands of the tobacco companies. The quotas, he said, might work for the big chains but for a small, locally owned business like his, the demands are just too high for a product that already has a small profit margin.
“If you sign a contract, you have to buy a certain amount per week and I don’t want to be responsible for that,” he said. “I’m not selling as much as I’d like, but I’m already spending a lot on tobacco. The contract quotas demand way too much.”
Making the choking motion with his hands when describing the contract he made with a tobacco company, Magdi “Mego” Girgis, owner of Dépanneur Mego on rue Lajeuness in Ahuntsic, said the contract puts high demands on his store – a store that he has owned and operated for over 14 years. It’s a contract that not only demands quotas but forces him to sell certain brands. The law has become a means for the tobacco companies to make money, he said, and “it won’t change anything.”
“I could put [tobacco products] behind the panels, hide them in the ceiling or under the counter,” Girgis said. “Nothing changes. It doesn’t make any sense. If you don’t see the cigarettes, it doesn’t change the taste of tobacco or people’s desire to smoke. When my customers come in, they know what they smoke. It doesn’t matter where I put the cigarettes – people already know what they want. It isn’t going to make them want it less.”
Due to the high cost of the shelving and possible decline in tobacco sales, officials at Canada’s Convenience Stores Association (CCSA), have said the new law will have a negative effect on business – closing the doors of an estimated 30 percent of privately-owned stores. Government officials are missing the point and taking aim at the wrong target, according to Michel Gadbois, executive vice president of CCSA and president of the Quebec Convenience Stores Association.
“What this law doesn’t deal with is that 40 percent of cigarettes are now contraband,” said Gadbois. “So my question is, what is the government doing about that 40 percent? All they’re doing is hitting the legal market - the people that they control - with something that, to a certain extent, has been proven ineffective.”
Noting a sudden 30 percent decline in public tobacco sales that correlates to the fast growing tobacco contraband market, Gadbois said “I wonder if [the government] understands statistics, because that 30 percent has obviously gone to the black market.”
Instead of sending tobacco police around to bust convenience stores, Gadbois said the inspectors would be better put to use on school property which makes up for a large portion of illegal tobacco sales.
Emotions are mixed as Montrealers across the island adjust to the new law. Many were shocked when they first laid eyes on the blank shelves, colorless cabinets and occasional make-shift screens that are being used to hide cigarettes from customers. The idea that the government is hiding a widely-available legal product is, for some Montrealers, insulting.
Simon Céré, 33-year-old resident of east end Montreal said, “By covering it up and keeping it out of view, the government is treating people like children. It’s like a mother offering her kid a new bike but then keeping it hidden, only letting him use it when he asks for it. It doesn’t make any sense.” Céré expressed a view held by many The Métropolitain talked with that buying legal products is a choice that should be left to the consumer.
For others, like Johanna Jakobsdottir, 29-year-old resident of Westmount, the cover-up is counterproductive to the goals of the law. Citing the many establishments that have installed flip-down doors on all their cigarette shelves, she said the new look actually draws more attention to the products. Where customers have gotten used to seeing racks of cigarettes behind the counter for years, the new displays attract the eye more than anything.
“It’s fucking ugly in the dépanneurs,” said Sebastien Rondeau-Legault, a 34-year-old Montrealer from the east end who quit smoking two months ago. “I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but it’s ugly. Maybe if they put some advertising for something else on the shelves so we’re not just looking at a blank space.”
“I think it’s sort of stupid,” said 19-year-old Notre-Dame-de-Grâce resident and occasional smoker, Rob Putnam. “People are just going to go in and ask them to open them all up so they can see what products are available.`”