Last month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new public health initiative: He called for legislation that would require stores to keep cigarettes and other tobacco products out of sight, so they’d present less of a temptation. Here, Ilana Knopf, director of the Center for Public Health and Tobacco Policy at New England Law | Boston, argues that Massachusetts should follow his lead.
By Ilana Knopf
Walk into virtually any convenience store in your town and you will have trouble avoiding colorful, prominent cigarette displays. They’re almost always located at eye-level, behind the registers, formed into a power wall of cigarettes that resemble an in-store billboard. It’s not an accident that these tobacco product displays are so visible. Tobacco companies spend billions of dollars on point-of-sale advertising. The reason is simple: it works.
If you have never noticed these displays or don’t think they’re a big deal, it’s probably because you’re more than 18 years old and outside of the tobacco industry’s true target audience: teenagers. In its quest to preserve and grow market share, tobacco companies are heavily invested in recruiting new users, and these new users are overwhelmingly (90 percent) our teenage sons and daughters.
Don’t take my word for it; take it from the tobacco companies themselves. As one Philip Morris report put it, “[t]he ability to attract new smokers and develop them into a young adult franchise is key to brand development.”
Tobacco companies are extensively invested in the point-of-sale strategy. They spend nearly $8 billion each year on this type of marketing (93 percent of their marketing budget), which is five times more than junk food, soda and alcohol manufacturers spend combined.
Point-of-sale displays are particularly effective in attracting young people. Tobacco companies rely upon the fact that teenagers are open to experimentation and move from experimenting to addiction far more quickly than for adults. The companies’ goal is to get young people to try tobacco with the intent of converting them into lifelong users. Research has found that adolescents are more influenced by tobacco marketing than peer pressure in their decision to start smoking.
In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed significantly restricting tobacco displays. Under his proposal, retail stores will still be permitted to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products — and advertise that such products are available for sale — but would have to do away with the large display of cigarette packs and other tobacco products that customers see behind the checkout counter in many convenience stores, pharmacies, and other retail establishments. Tobacco products would remain out of sight until a customer has asked for them and the salesclerk has verified that the customer is at least eighteen years old.
The mayor’s proposal makes sense. Research clearly shows that restricting product displays is a successful tool for reducing youth tobacco initiation (and thus lifelong addiction). In Canada, England, Iceland, Ireland and other places where these restrictions have been implemented, youth smoking rates have significantly declined.
It is not just young people who stand to benefit. Point of sale displays act as powerful cues to smoke, especially for those who are looking to kick the habit. A 2008 study found that more than 25 percent of smokers bought cigarettes after seeing a cash register display, even though they were not shopping for cigarettes. As many addiction specialists have noted about the mayor’s proposal, “visual triggers are a huge part of addiction.” (It’s why we hide the fatty foods when we’re looking to lose weight).
Not only does the New York proposal align with what we know about why teenagers try smoking and about addictive behaviors, it addresses a critical health care issue. As the Surgeon General has stated, tobacco use is a pediatric epidemic. Reducing the rate at which young people start smoking is the key to reducing the devastating impact of smoking on the health of Americans. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death, accounting for about one in five deaths in the U.S. Our focus should be on preventing lung cancer, heart disease, and other deadly results of tobacco use by reducing the smoking rate – and the way to do that is by targeting young people and the factors that influence their decisions.
The tobacco industry already focuses on influencing youth decisions about tobacco use. Isn’t it time we caught up?
Here in Massachusetts, municipal and state officials should strongly consider following Mayor Bloomberg’s lead. In 2011, 21% of Massachusetts high school students used tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, or smokeless tobacco). The 2009 Tobacco Control Act allows states and localities to pass tobacco control initiatives. Our children should be able to grow up free from an invasive and aggressive tobacco industry that peddles to them a deadly and addictive product.
Yankees and Red Sox aside, lending our support to New York City would send a strong message to big tobacco across the country that we’re not going to allow them to prey on our children any longer.
Ilana Knopf is Director of the Center for Public Health and Tobacco Policy at New England Law | Boston.