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. Continue reading