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Study asks how displays, packaging lure young people to tobacco

Jenna Kingsley said it isn’t surprising that her fellow teenagers would be drawn to 89-cent cigars with grape flavoring and placed in packaging that makes them look like candy.

“That really draws them in,” the Virginia High School senior said Monday in downtown Duluth as she took part in a news conference with the American Lung Association to kick off its “Lethal Lure” tobacco prevention and policy campaign.

Evidence that tobacco companies are targeting young people in stores isn’t just anecdotal, according to advocates. Kingsley was part of a team of volunteers that went to 279 businesses in Northeastern Minnesota that sell tobacco to study how companies use point of sale techniques to lure people toward their products.

“It’s just sickening how much they advertise to kids,” Kingsley said.

The strategies in stores are nefarious, said Pat McKone, director of tobacco prevention and policy for the Minnesota chapter of the American Lung Association.

“You may not take notice at the level of a child,” she said.

Volunteers noted cheap tobacco products in brightly colored packages near candy displays. More than 75 percent of stores sell flavored products, including smokeless tobacco. Signs and other cues draw children, Kingsley said.

“They go for these products,” she said.

In the past year, the state’s branch of the American Lung Association, in partnership with Iron Range Youth in Action and other regional young people, conducted the audits in convenience stores, pharmacies, grocery stores and other locations with tobacco licenses across Northeastern Minnesota.  

Volunteers counted the number of tobacco advertisements inside and outside the store, looked for specific types of tobacco products being sold, checked for price discounts and promotions as well as product placement. Additional information was gathered from cities and counties, such as number of tobacco licenses, license fees and fine structures for selling to minors.  

A map was created showing how and where tobacco is sold in the region. Data includes how many stores are in a neighborhood, retailers with failed compliance checks and retailer proximity to schools, parks and playgrounds.

McKone said the goal of the audit is to provide policy makers in the region some information on what is happening at stores. She would like to see more consistency in tobacco license costs and ordinances passed to keep tobacco away from children. She cited the city of Ely’s new regulations on e-cigarettes that include the requirement that all tobacco products be inaccessible to customers behind counters. She also praised pharmacy chain CVS for its recent decision to end tobacco sales at stores.

Joining McKone and Kingsley on Monday were Duluth City Council member Linda Krug, Duluth School Board member Annie Harala and Louise Anderson from the Carlton, Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Community Health Board.

Despite leading the way on curtailing e-cigarettes and other indoor air policies, Krug said: “I see so much more that we can do.”

“We still have students being targeted,” Harala said.

Anderson said there is momentum for prevention awareness but it’s a battle, as states spend $1.50 per person on prevention messages while the tobacco industry spends about $27 per person to “lure” them into smoking or chewing.

Kingsley said she saw a “tidal wave” of tobacco promotion in the stores she visited. Volunteers let clerks know what they were doing if asked and followed strict protocol from the association.

The association also contracted with Zenith Research Group for a public opinion poll of 2,160 residents in St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Carlton, Koochiching, Itasca and Beltrami counties, asking their opinions on tobacco and smoking.

  • 14.6 percent said they were current smokers.
  • 77 percent support a policy of not allowing smoking within 25 feet of entrances to buildings.
  • More than 80 percent want all tobacco products sold behind the counter by people age 18 or older and any products kept away from candy and other child-related products.
  • 61 percent want tobacco out of pharmacies.
  • Just more than half of respondents want to restrict visibility of products, limits sales to adult-only shops and limit the number of tobacco retailers in a community.

McKone encouraged people to take notice the next time they are in a store that sells tobacco, especially those flavored cigars. “Take a look,” she said of the messages being sent to young people. “It’s just wrong.”

“The ultimate goal is to make health the easy choice,” she said.