Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg opened a new front in his antismoking campaign last week when he proposed new legislation that would require stores to keep tobacco products out of sight, making New York the first city in the nation to do so.
Its companion bill, however, has the potential to be just as groundbreaking, experts on tobacco control said. Along with strengthening the penalties on retailers that evade tobacco taxes, the second bill establishes a minimum price for cigarettes and cigarillos, or little cigars, of $10.50 a pack, the first time such a strategy has been used to combat smoking. The bill also prohibits retailers from redeeming coupons or offering other discounts, like two-for-one deals.
“This is kind of a landmark set of proposals here,” said Kurt Ribisl, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, whose research on tobacco control influenced Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal. “For someone like me, who’s spent 18 years studying point-of-sale issues, this is kind of big.”
Dr. Ribisl studies what happens at the retail counter, where a customer at a typical convenience store sees a colorful array of signs, packaging and “shelf talkers” — the small tags that flutter from shelves — promoting two-for-one, dollar-off and other types of deals. According to a Federal Trade Commission report issued last year, the tobacco industry spent $6.5 billion on discounts in 2010, and Dr. Ribisl said they are one of the major ways cigarette makers encourage price-conscious customers like teenagers and low-income smokers to buy.
New York’s price-regulation bill would, in effect, close off the remaining means of access to cheap cigarettes and little cigars, which make it easier for teenagers to experiment with smoking, and progress to smoking regularly, said Brett Loomis, a researcher at RTI International, a nonprofit institute that offers research and technical services to governments and businesses.
City and state taxes already add $5.85 to the cost of every pack, the highest cigarette taxes in the country. About half of all states, including New York, also require wholesalers and retailers to mark the price of cigarettes up by a certain percentage. The laws were generally intended to protect business in small stores by preventing large chains from selling cigarettes below cost, as so-called loss leaders, which draw in customers.
Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal, which will be taken up by the City Council, goes beyond those laws by specifying a minimum price. The health department said $10.50 was the median price of the lowest-priced packs in more than 300 city stores. That, and the prohibition on coupons or discounts, will “thwart the tobacco companies’ ability to prey on low-income and minority smokers,” Dr. Ribisl said.
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, said the city should focus on eradicating the illegal cigarette trade, rather than further restricting retailers, who are already required to perform age checks on customers.
“Piling on additional regulations designed to get at youth access when the sales compliance rate at licensed retailers is very, very high already — we just don’t think that’s the right approach,” Mr. Sutton said.
As for the ban on discounts, Mr. Bloomberg, who is accustomed to setting an example for other municipalities in public-health initiatives, from smoking bans to calorie counts, may have looked to Providence, R.I., which passed an ordinance forbidding retailers from honoring coupons and discounts last January.
Tobacco companies sued, but the federal district judge ruled for Providence, which defended its right to regulate sales and prices within the city. Though the tobacco companies have appealed, the ban went into effect on Jan. 3. Mr. Bloomberg’s tobacco-control bills are also almost certain to be challenged in court.
“We felt that these coupons and multipack discounts were a loophole,” said Providence’s mayor, Angel Taveras, “and we felt it was important to close this loophole, especially because it was a matter of life and death. We anticipated getting sued, but it was worth the fight.”
As for Mr. Bloomberg’s announcement, Mr. Taveras said he wished his crusading counterpart all the best.
“I’m not sure that he needs any advice from me,” he said.
Source: The New York Times