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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- A new report is trying to connect the dots between convenience stores and tobacco companies, claiming the two industries have joined forces to market tobacco products to children. And it's no surprise, c-store industry leaders are not taking the allegations lightly.
"First, it's important to stress that convenience stores sell legal products in a lawful way, and this is true with all products," said Jeff Lenard, vice president, industry advocacy for NACS, the Association for Convenience & Petroleum Retailing. "Calling it a 'new report' is a stretch because the supposed findings aren't new and aren't findings."
Specifically, he pointed to the report's footnotes that indicate it "is a cobbled-together collection of recycled golden oldies that goes back, in some cases, more than 30 years." Even setting that aside, "the presumptions simply do not add up," he said.
The report, "Deadly Alliance: How Tobacco Companies and Convenience Stores Partner to Market Tobacco Products and Fight Life-Saving Policies," is authored by The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Counter Tobacco and the American Heart Association (AHA). It states that the tobacco companies have not only enlisted c-stores to help market tobacco products to underage users, but also to help fight policies aimed at reducing tobacco use, as CSNews Online previously reported.
The report adds that the tobacco companies spend more than 90 percent of their marketing budget to "saturate convenience stores, gas stations and other retail outlets" and pay stores billions to ensure that cigarettes and other tobacco products are advertised heavily, displayed prominently and priced cheaply "to appeal to both kids and current tobacco users."
C-store industry insiders acknowledge that tobacco products are a big slice of their business, but said that does not mean the two are in cahoots.
"[Our] members remain committed to being responsible retailers of all age-restricted products," said Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS). "While tobacco sales to legal customers are an important segment of our business, it is simply irresponsible to assume that we are joined at the hip."
In response to the report's findings that convenience stores promote tobacco products through advertisements and branded items, one industry executive noted that in-store advertising is not limited to tobacco products.
"[Yes], and so are dairy products, salty snacks, soft drinks, beer, coffee and lottery," explained Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS). "We reject the AHA's theory that the mere sight of a price sign saying 'Marlboro' compels young people to start smoking. If that were the case, then the mere sight of a toothpaste ad would compel young people to brush their teeth."
As for the "power walls" of tobacco products placed behind cash registers, as described in the report, Calvin pointed out that New York State law -- which the AHA lobbied for -- requires retailers to display tobacco products behind the counter.
The report's suggestion that elected officials increase tobacco levies to help reduce use and counter the influence of point-of-sale marketing also leaves some scratching their heads.
"To suggest the tobacco taxes don't hurt sales because our store count increased is truly laughable," Lenard said.
Despite the report's assertion that tobacco companies enlist c-stores to help oppose policy aimed at tobacco products, Calvin and Tudor explained that their associations fight the policies -- especially tax increases -- because the retail operations are fighting for their livelihood.
"NYACS consistently lobbies against cigarette tax increases because here in New York, experience proves they succeed only in driving customers away from our stores without reducing smoking significantly," Calvin said. He added that New York's $4.35-per-pack state excise tax -- the highest in the country -- drives adult tobacco users to buy cigarettes elsewhere, either on Native American reservations, the black market or at out-of-state stores.
Georgia convenience stores face a similar situation, according to Tudor.
"GACS has always opposed, and will continue to oppose, any tax policy, including tobacco, that would place Georgia retailers at a competitive disadvantage along our borders," he said. "With three large metropolitan areas on the border, we are especially susceptible to any tax changes that do not recognize these real competitive issues."
Far from promoting underage tobacco use, industry leaders contend that convenience store operators are taking steps to work with different agencies to combat the problem.
"Food stores in New Hampshire are absolutely opposed to selling any age-restricted products to children," said John Dumais, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association. "Retailers are using the WE CARD program, having employees attend the state's enforcement educational classes and internally reinforcing their commitment through regular reminders."
The efforts are paying off. Food stores in New Hampshire have passed compliance tests more than 93 percent of the time, he said.
In Georgia, GACS is talking with officials at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to develop joint messaging aimed at both retailers and the underage consumers who look to buy age-restricted products, Tudor said.