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New York plan challenges Big Tobacco

8:19 PM, Mar. 20, 2013  |  Comments
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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose long string of anti-smoking, anti-trans fat, anti-soda, and other public-health initiatives often stir controversy - as well as success - moved forward Wednesday with a measure to ban tobacco product displays in stores.

Smoking displays have long been documented as effective marketing tools to youth. Several other countries no longer allow cigarettes and the like to be openly displayed in stores that youths frequent. Studies, research and plain old common sense support the idea that keeping big, colorful cigarette displays out of kids' sight helps curb the appeal to start smoking in the first place, and helps people trying to quit.

A study published in the January issue of Pediatrics showed that youths were less likely to purchase tobacco products if they shopped in stores without tobacco displays. "In the U.S., tobacco companies spend most of their advertising dollars promoting cigarettes in retail stores. Open displays of tobacco products normalize smoking and stimulate unplanned purchases," according to the study's lead author, Annice Kim, a research public health analyst at the nonprofit RTI International in North Carolina.

A 2012 Surgeon General's report, "Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults," also affirmed the efficacy of store display marketing. "Displays of packages in retail outlets, commonly referred to as 'powerwalls,' have high visibility among youth and help to establish brand imagery and social norms at an early age," according to the report.

Kerry Malloy Schneider, senior staff attorney for the Center for Public Health and Tobacco Policy at New England Law in Boston, said that nations including Canada, Ireland and New Zealand have implemented bans with little impact to sales at stores. What has been impacted, according to Schneider, is the youth smoking rates in those countries, which declined.

A state Supreme Court justice recently struck down Bloomberg's proposed ban on large-size sugary drinks, panning the measure as arbitrary and capricious, full of loopholes, and an impermissible intrusion upon the powers of the City Council. But New York City has enjoyed broad success advancing public-health fixes, particularly in the smoking arena, and has seen other localities follow its lead. The city's ban on smoking in restaurants and bars led to the state's ban, passed 10 years ago this month. In 2011, the city became the largest municipality to make its parks, beaches and pedestrian plazas smoke-free; now, train platforms on commuter-rail lines are smoke-free. New York City lost a bid last year to force stores that sell tobacco to display anti-tobacco ads that carried graphic images of the health effects of smoking.

The city effort comes as the state has faltered in reinvesting tax proceeds from tobacco sales into programs that help people quit, or never start, smoking; the proposed 2013-2014 state budget cuts smoking-prevention programs even further.

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