Anti-smoking groups worried about youth-targeted advertisements
By Courtney M. Holbrook
A bright window advertises candy, snack food and soda brands. Wrapped around the display in bright green foil, white block letters read “KOOLS, KOOLS, KOOLS.” In the corner, a mint-green box of KOOLS lies next to the Snickers bars.
A long white cigarette pops out against a black background. With a high-tech look and clean colors, it could pass as an advertisement for an Apple product. Beneath the cigarette, large block letters scream out the message “SMOKELESS CIGARETTES.”
These advertisements show up on bodegas across the street from a children’s playground on the Lower East Side. Head down the street, and a customer can walk past Emma Lazarus High School and MS 131.
Take a walk through Chinatown, and make an attempt to buy cigarettes. Although it may not apply to every bodega, it is still possible to purchase cigarettes without receiving an ID check from the man or woman behind the counter.
Despite the increasingly severe crackdown on smoking in New York City, anti-smoking activists are concerned that kids in Lower Manhattan neighborhoods are still lighting up and getting hooked.
“Young people want to fit in and feel cool,” said Adam Steiner, a SmokeFree Project counselor at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in the West Village. “At a young age, kids are extremely vulnerable to the messages all over the place. And when it comes to smoking, they’re seeing these messages in stores right near their schools.”
According to Steiner, approximately 17,000 high school students in New York City smoke. Steiner says this high figure is due to the alliance between convenience stores and tobacco companies.
“Go to a Rite Aid or a bodega, and you’ll see the massive power walls of cigarettes,” Steiner said. “These power walls are displayed right in front of the candy bars. Why are they not under the counter? Kids shouldn’t see these products as normal things on sale.”
Such ads and displays are meant to be highly visible, but they are not illegal, however. As long as cigarettes are kept behind the counter, bodegas and convenience stores have every right to display them as they choose, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.
“I am not doing anything illegal by selling my cigarettes to customers who are over 18,” said one bodega owner in the Lower East Side, who would only give his first name, Mohammad. “I ask for ID, I give them what they want. I don’t do anything illegal.”
The problem of legality may restrict customer complaints about tobacco advertising. If parents or other concerned community members have problems with the way bodegas are promoting their products, they can contact their community boards. These boards, in turn, contact the Department of Consumer Affairs or the District Attorney’s Office.
Community Board No. 2 encompasses Greenwich Village, NoHo, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, Hudson Square and Gansevoort Market. Bob Gormley, the district manager for Community Board No. 2, said they would have a problem with any youth-targeted advertising— f they were receiving complaints.
“We have not had a single complaint from anyone about the tobacco products or the advertisements in bodegas in our area,” Gormley said. “Obviously, if we did, we could contact the appropriate agencies.”
Gormley said that although it is “clear that tobacco kills, we haven’t heard anything from families or teachers complaining about their kids being sold or pressured to buy tobacco products from convenience stores.”
Marie Myman, a 22-year-old barista at Momofuku Milk Bar, grew up on the Lower East Side and started smoking when she was 12. Myman does not see her old smoking habits as the result of advertisements at convenience stores.
“I started smoking because I wanted to fit in with my older friends,” Myman said. “I thought smoking was cool because the older kids were doing it. We definitely weren’t looking to the posters on bodegas for signs that it was OK.”
However, Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, insists that the “unholy alliance” with convenience stores has allowed tobacco companies to continue targeting youth.
“Since tobacco advertising is banned in most major media outlets today, tobacco companies have stepped up their game in marketing through convenience stores,” McGoldrick said. “[Tobacco companies] spend almost $10 billion a year to push their products in convenience stores and other retail areas … that’s more than 90 percent of their budget.”
The alliance between convenience stores and tobacco companies comes together with printed advertisements and point-of-sale marketing. According to the 2012 Surgeon General’s report released by the federal government, children tend to be more price-sensitive than adults; through point-of-sale marketing, tobacco companies and convenience stores offer price discounts and coupons that may encourage new smokers. These incentives also tend to occur in lower-income areas, where prices may be more of a concern.
“We know point-of-sale is where the vast majority of tobacco advertisement occurs,” McGoldrick said. “By making tobacco more affordable and accessible, [tobacco companies] have made it normal.”
The sense of “normalcy” that surrounds tobacco advertisements in convenience stores is the primary risk for children. From the time “you can walk into a bodega, you’re exposed to cigarettes. They’re everyday, and that is insidious … you may not realize what’s driving a kid to try that first cigarette, because it’s just a part of everyday life,” Steiner noted.
According to McGoldrick and Steiner, tobacco companies use their money to pressure convenience stores to display cigarettes in an open, positive way. Concerned parents may not even notice these advertisements. When approached about this topic, most bodega owners refused to comment.
Right now, the way to fight back lies in two corner —politics and economics. In the same way children are drawn to cigarettes through discounts, various anti-smoking groups recommend even greater price increases for cigarettes in New York City. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids also recommends that steps be taken to force tobacco companies to advertise in black and white text; by taking away colorful images, they hope to reduce the appeal for children.
“On a statewide level, we need to invest more of our budget into anti-smoking programs in schools, where so many anti-smoking initiatives may stop after elementary school,” McGoldrick said. “Right now, tobacco companies outspend states. … If we can get states to dedicate 15 percent of their budget toward tobacco prevention, we could really see changes.”
Steiner noted the real fight must take place before children begin smoking. Once they have started, the difficulty moves beyond the first problem of addiction, and toward legal problems.
“It’s beyond the fact that quitting smoking is so difficult,” Steiner said. “As someone who helps people quit, I can’t work with those under 18. I can’t offer them nicotine replacements, because they’re under 18 and it’s illegal to smoke and illegal to use products with nicotine that help you quit. So, it becomes incredibly difficult to help.”
For now, the convenience stores of Lower Manhattan continue to plaster cigarette advertisements on glass walls and behind counters stacked with bright boxes of tobacco products. But those in the anti-smoking community hope that someday those power walls will cease to exist, and tobacco companies will lose their supply of new customers.
“Kids may want to be cool and, at that age, they also think they’re indestructible,” Steiner said. “For that reason, we need to spread the awareness of what is going on. People need to know that the advertisements they see in their local bodega can be extremely dangerous.”
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