Proposed Ban on Tobacco POS Displays
The New York City subway system is full of ads. Ads for movies, ads for plastic surgeons, ads for storage space. Ads for television shows, ads for Broadway plays, ads for religious organizations and continuing education. In short: ads for pretty much everything. But not all the ads plastered across the great underground of NYC promote a product or organization, some are designed to draw attention to issues. For example, smoking, and how children are influenced by cigarettes’ ubiquitous presence not only in the media, but in stores themselves.
I can’t remember the first time I saw an ad explicitly denouncing the placement of tobacco products, but the most recent was only weeks ago. This particular subway poster showed a group of kids standing by a convenience store counter, where cigarettes were prominently displayed directly behind the point of sale—as they so often are. “This is tobacco marketing,” states the poster. “Kids who see it are more likely to smoke.” Reading the poster, I don’t think I had the intended reaction. Mostly, I wondered, how much more likely? Also, how was this was determined? And, where did they find kids who hadn’t been exposed to cigarette displays in order to make this comparison?
I don’t know about my first two questions, but if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, the answer to my third could soon be: the children of NYC. Bloomberg recently proposed a law that would ban retail stores from displaying tobacco products in that prime eye-level spot right behind the cash register. All tobacco products would instead have to be locked away out of sight, and customers would presumably only be exposed to cigarettes if they explicitly asked for them—or happened to be around when the secret stash was being restocked.
Clearly the thinking here is: out of sight, out of mind. Morality and politics asides, it’s interesting to consider this proposal from the POS point of view. Most businesses owners are probably aware that the space directly behind the counter is coveted by goods manufacturers. Cigarette manufacturers pay a lot of money to have their products displayed there. The placement works as de facto advertising, in addition to all their actual advertisements. This article, citing a Federal Trade Commission report, reports that in the year 2010 alone tobacco companies spent $370 million to ensure that their products would be shelved directly behind the points of sale.
According to the organization Tobacco Free New York State, tobacco companies put more than money into ensuring their products are displayed exactly how they want them to be displayed. They also provide free display cases and shelving, which often tout the brand’s name brightly for all customers—including teens and children—to see. Tobacco Free New York State further elaborates: “Many retailers sign contracts with tobacco companies, whose sales reps measure, inch-by-inch, the shelving area that retailers are required to use for displaying and marketing tobacco products. Industry representatives work in our community each day to make sure that stores adhere strictly to the contract at all times. As a result, many New York retailers have become ensnared in a contractual web where they are stuck doing the tobacco industry’s dirty work.”
It would certainly be interesting to see the changes that would take place in convenience stores if retailers were not only no longer paid to display tobacco products so prominently, but outright banned from doing so. Would owners feel they were being denied an income source, or would they feel as though they’d been freed from a dubious obligation? If the ban passes in New York City, would it spread across the United States? In a few years, will seeing tobacco products behind a point of sale in a convenience store be as shocking and rare—at least to this resident of the Northeast—as walking into a restaurant where smoking is allowed?
In some communities, grocery stores have already stopped displaying or selling tobacco products—a matter of choice, not law. If Bloomberg’s ban is passed, New York City would be the first American city to require that tobacco products be concealed in the stores that sell them. But, a number of other countries have instituted similar bans. The effectiveness of the bans is debated; most are fairly recent and I imagine the data can be manipulated to fit both sides of the argument, depending on one’s position.
Bloomberg’s proposals are currently going to the City Council for consideration, so I suppose we will have to wait to see what happens. In the meantime, what I want to know is this: if cigarettes are banned from point of sale displays, what will take their place? I’m betting it won’t be vegetables.
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