NYC wants to put cigarettes out of sight in shops, but effect on smoking rates unclear

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Walk into any convenience store or gas station in the U.S., and chances are the cigarettes will be in the same spot: at eye level, right behind the cash register.

That’s no coincidence. Tobacco companies have worked hard, and paid well, to ensure that cigarette displays occupy the retail equivalent of prime real estate. In 2010 alone, the industry made $370 million in payments to retailers to help lock down prime shelving space, according to a report last year by the Federal Trade Commission.

“Every consumer-product goods manufacturer in the country wants to be there,” said Kurt M. Ribisl, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies tobacco marketing. “People making chips and Doritos and Pepsi — all of these companies want that space. But the tobacco industry wins.”

Now New York City, one of the nation’s biggest cigarette markets, wants to put the cigarettes out of sight.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a bill this week that would force retailers to keep cigarettes out of public view until a customer asks for a pack.

A second bill would take aim at the system of discounts and incentives that manufacturers have long used to attract customers.

It is too early to tell whether either measure will survive the legislative process or an almost-certain court challenge. Tobacco companies and convenience store owners have attacked both proposals as unfair and perhaps unconstitutional.

Even more unclear is whether the policy would lead to fewer people smoking.

A number of countries, including Ireland, Canada and Australia, have restricted retail tobacco displays, but most experts say the policies haven’t been in place long enough to know whether they have had a strong impact.

Big immediate drops in sales are unlikely, said Ribisl, who favours tighter restrictions on tobacco marketing. But he predicted that the display rules might lead to a modest reduction in smoking rates over time.

“When you stop discounting and multipack specials, you are now thwarting the tobacco industry’s ability to prey on low-income smokers,” Ribisl said.

Scientists at the non-profit research firm RTI International recently published the results of an experiment in which they had 1,200 young people take virtual shopping trips through computerized convenience stories. It found that kids were less likely to make fantasy purchases of cigarettes in shops where tobacco products were hidden in cabinets.

It is hard to say whether that type of simulation would repeat itself in real life, said Annice Kim, a social scientist who was involved in the project. But she said that one theory is that simply making a product less visible makes people less likely to make an impulse buy.

City health officials have said that obscuring cigarettes at the point of sale might lead to fewer impulse buys by addicts trying to quit. That logic appealed to smoker Demian Menezes, 37, who said the visibility of packs at stores was indeed a temptation during a two-year period when he quit.

“You always have that ‘Oh, my God — it’s right there’… ‘Pick me! Buy me! Smoke me!'” feeling, he said.

Opponents of the measure say it will only hassle smokers unnecessarily and make things more difficult for small businesses.

“It puts a lot of question marks on how you sell one of your major categories,” said Jeff Lenard, a vice-president at the National Association of Convenience Stores. “It’s not an easy time to be in business right now.”