Stores Near Schools

POS serves as the last frontier for tobacco regulation

In all likelihood, kids today don't see nearly as many cigarettes as their grandparents did. Gone are popular actors waving smoke in Hollywood scenes, and Seventeen magazine doesn't show tobacco next to the season's fashion trends anymore.

But there's still one place kids might see that Malboro man, and one reason they know American still smokes; in the convenience shops, grocery stores, and gas stations surrounding their schools and playgrounds, tobacco advertising still abounds.

The tobacco messages that kids see when purchasing after-school snacks are some of the few remaining, as health and public policy advocates have largely waged a war on the public advertisements in movies and magazines that used to be so common in America. Point-of-sale advertising has become one of the final frontiers for a tobacco industry looking to market its products to impressionable and price-sensitive youth.

Documents obtained from tobacco companies show evidence that corporate marketers have targeted convenience stores, grocery stores, and other tobacco vendors near schools and playgrounds in an effort to attract young smokers. Research shows that schools with fewer retailers nearby. As you are working on developing policies to help reduce youth exposure to tobacco marketing, you may find it helpful to expose tobacco industry efforts to target youth at stores.

Companies Changing Tactics to Target Youth

While tobacco companies used to create advertising campaigns directly for children, using whimsical packaging and cartoon characters, such direct messaging was eventually ruled illegal. In the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement agreement, the companies agreed not to "take any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth within any state in the advertising, promotion or marketing of tobacco products."

As a condition of the 1998 settlement, tobacco companies were required to make internal documents and memos public through a national database. The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library contains more than 13 million documents researching back as far as the early 1900's. Scholars and health professionals have analyzed these documents, finding evidence of tobacco executives specifically targeting youths. 

"I have attached information on younger adult purchase patterns and target outlets for DB," wrote one RJ Reynolds tobacco executive to another in 1984, about Project DB, a marketing effort targeting younger purchasers. The objective of a new marketing scheme would be "To offensively take share from Marlboro by capitalizing on the price sensitivity of younger adult smokers," wrote another 1984 executive:

  • Targeting Younger Adult Smokers:
    • Ojective: Minimize RJR cannibalization and maximize younger adult share opportunity.
    • Issues:
      • Targeting distribution to younger adult outlets.
      • Targeting in-store advertising and promotion programs to younger adult outlets.

While the executives would argue that their discussion of "younger adults" was referring to those older than 18, there were instances where a broader interpretation was implied.

"The base our business is the high school student," wrote a tobacco executive reguarding Newport cigarettes in 1978. An RJ Reynolds executive sent a memo in 1990 asking area sales representatives to identify areas near high schools or college campuses where tobacco sales were profitable and traffic was highest:

Due to a revision in the definition of what is a retail Young Adult Smoker Retailer Account, you will be required to resubmit again your list of Y.A.S. accounts in your territory utilizing the scroll masters. The criteria for you to utilize in identifying these accounts are as follows:

(1) All package action calls located across from, adjacent to are in the general vicinty of the high schools or college campus. (under 30 years of age)

In 1990 RJ Reynolds came under criticism after the Wall Street Journal published a story about a supervisor who attempted to market cigarettes specifically to schoolchildren. In the memo obtained by the Journal, the supervisor, James McMahon, instructed a regional sales manager, Terrance Sullivan, to implement the program in stores:

To the Sales Reps reguarding the Young Adult Market. The McMahon Memo gave the Sales Reps 12 days in which to denote the stores in each of their assignments that were heavily frequented by young adult shoppers. The January 10, 1990 memo said, "those stores can be in close proximity to colleges or high schools or areas where there are a large number of young adults frequenting the store." The purpose of the exercise, Defendant McMahon said, was to identify those stores where they would try to keep premium (promotional) items in the store at all times.

Sullivan refused to sign off on the program, and later sued RJ Reynolds when he was fired for doing so.

The examples of executives targeting youths are numerous. In a 1998 RJ Reynolds memo titled, "The importance of Youth Adults," an executive outline the need to retain young smokers. "Youth adults are the only source of replacement smokers," he wrote. Today's younger adult smoking behavior will largely determine the trend of industry volume over the next several decades. If younger adults turn away from smoking, the industry must decline, just as a population which does not give birth will eventually dwindle."

Stores near schools in some areas may be more likely to sell to minors or display more tobacco advertising than others. A study conducted in Washington D.C. found that illicit sales to minors were higher in tobacco retailers located closer to high schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The researchers also found that the closer retailer density, student who were current smokers were more likely to make purchase attempts and students who were non-smokers were more likely to be susceptible to smoking.

Tobacco comapnies know that youth use of tobacco is price-sensitive and that raise tobacco prices reduces youth smoking. Another survey of D.C. tobacco retailers found that the lowest cigarette pack price per retailer was significantly lower in stores located near public schools than stores located near private schools. A study of New York State retailers found that retailers located in neighborhoods with a lower proportion of youth residents.

The Philidelphia Department of Health and Smoke Free Phily have created a multi-media exploration of retail tobacco on a neighborhood level. One section titled "On the Way to School I Saw..." shows that a child passes 16 tobacco retailers on his 15 minute walk to school:

Banning Point-of-Sale Advertising Near Schools 

The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act is a federal law that enables the FDA to regulate tobacco companies by restricting the sale, distribution, accessibility, advertising, and promotions of tobacco products, as consistent with the companies' First Amendment rights. The FDA is currently seeking opinion and research on the potential impact of banning point-of-sale advertising. Tobacco companies have argued that banning advertising near schools would effectively amount to a blanket ban on all advertising, and an attempt by the state of Massachusetts to implement a 1,000 foot ban was struck down by this reasoning.

But a study conducted by researches in March 2011 analyzed the impact of a 1,000 foot ban in New York City and St. Louis, and found that such a restriction would affect only 51 and 22 percent of retailers, respectively, and that a 350 foot ban on advertising near schools.