Local public health advocates say they are alarmed Family Dollar stores plan to start selling cigarettes and other tobacco products in its five St. Lawrence County locations.
Area youth are already exposed to too many displays of tobacco products in retail stores, which influences them to smoke, they say.
“Family Dollar’s decision would add 279 more retailers – including five in St. Lawrence County – at a time when reducing the density of tobacco retailers is a priority goal of tobacco control efforts worldwide,” said Benjamin Todd, St. Lawrence County Tobacco Program Coordinator. “There is already one licensed tobacco retailer for every 194 children in New York State.” Todd said there should be fewer, not more places where youth see tobacco.
Family Dollar has stores in the five larger communities in St. Lawrence County, in Ogdensburg, Massena, Gouverneur, Potsdam and Canton.
Todd points to a New York State Department of Health report that found that almost every licensed tobacco retailer displays tobacco product advertising, with an average of 18 ads per store. The 2012 Surgeon General’s Report, “Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” confirmed that the more young people see tobacco advertising, the more likely they are to smoke.
“The most powerful marketing tool available to tobacco companies is product packaging and displays in stores,” said Todd.
In St. Lawrence County, 27 percent of adults use tobacco, which is well above the state average of 15.5 percent. A Gallup-Healthways poll showed that individuals with the lowest incomes were six times more likely to report smoking than those in higher income brackets.
In a conference call with investors late last month, Family Dollar President and Chief Operating Officer Michael R. Bloom laid out the plan: “In addition to our investments in existing business like food, we are also investing in new businesses to drive more traffic into our stores. Tobacco is about a $90 billion business that drives very frequent trips. We know that many of our customers purchase these products today from other retail outlets. And our customer research tells us that Family Dollar customers overindex on cigarettes and tobacco products. Soon, our customers will be able to come to our stores for these products.”
Todd cited studies that show that marketing at the point of sale provides cues to smoking, influences smoking initiation among youth, and stimulates purchasing among smokers trying to quit. The 2011 Retail Advertising of Tobacco Survey found that stores in New York State have an average of 32 square feet devoted to displays of tobacco products.
Family Dollar’s decision to sell tobacco at over 7,000 stores nationwide has met opposition from national groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the American Legacy Foundation. Their campaign website, http://familydollarvalues.com, says “Family Dollar claims they are doing this for the convenience of their customers, but there is nothing convenient about the cancer, heart disease, oral disease and lung disease that result from tobacco use.”
“I already see tobacco ads behind the counter in most stores,” said Morgan Albert, Massena Central student. “We need to reduce tobacco marketing so we can prevent the tobacco industry from hooking more kids as customers.”
Due to concern about the impact of tobacco marketing on youth, local governments are considering a variety of regulatory options such as limiting the number of tobacco retailers near schools and requiring stores to cover displays of tobacco products. These policy options were made possible by the passage of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave local governments the ability to regulate the time, place, and manner in which tobacco products are advertised and sold.
“Communities have it within their power to stop the spread of tobacco sales and to reduce the harmful impact of tobacco marketing to youth and to people in lower income communities” said Beth Gero, PhD., Tobacco Cessation Specialist. “Having a tobacco retailer licensing law in place could help reverse the trend of more stores selling tobacco, which would go a long way towards preventing our young people from starting to use tobacco in the first place.”
Todd notes a campaign by Community Partnerships for a Tobacco Free New York attempting to reduce the amount of tobacco marketing that youth see in stores. There is more on that at http://tobaccofreenys.org.