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Every retailer deals with government restrictions on the products they sell. Whether in the name of protecting the environment, public safety or public health, regulations have clamped down on how, where and when convenience stores can sell everything from fuel to firecrackers, and cigarettes to beer. But lurking there between the magazine rack and the motor oil is the new menace to society -- food. Yes, that life-sustaining necessity has become the new No. 1 culprit for the ills of our country.
Regulations on food are nothing new. Manufacturers and retailers have, for decades, complied with government rules that ensure food safety and prevent false claims through food labeling. But in recent years, cities, states and the federal government have begun to aim their attention at the content of otherwise safe and properly labeled products sold in stores nationwide. And they've got research to support their goals.
The Gallup organization recently released a poll indicating that Americans now view obesity as a bigger threat to society than smoking or alcohol ("Americans' Concerns About Obesity Soar, Surpass Smoking"). Eighty-one percent of respondents in the nationwide poll deemed obesity as an "extremely" or "very serious" problem for society. Exactly how to tackle rising obesity rates broke down on partisan lines, with 82 percent of Democrats in the poll saying that federal programs are needed to address the issue. Twenty-seven percent of Republicans felt similarly.
The American economy is on the verge of another recession, unemployment continues to hover above 8 percent, and the future of our social safety net hangs in the balance of the upcoming Presidential election. Yet the public health menace of easy access to potato chips remains top of mind for the electorate.
This type of polling has fomented in recent years the startling trend taking hold among policymakers and public health regulators, that efforts to change consumers' personal eating and exercising habits are no longer how their battle against obesity will be won. New laws and programs increasingly seek to put the onus on the retailer -- whether that be the c-store clerk or the restaurant chef -- in order to limit the choice available to the consumer.
In this line of thinking, it is more effective to remove the choice altogether than to even tempt a consumer by offering an array of food and drink choices. Make it harder to obtain the "bad choices" and John Q. Public will forget he ever wanted that candy bar or jumbo soda. For c-store operators, this means you are now the responsible party for America's expanding waistlines. Success in the battle of the bulge, so say public health activists, will come from cracking down on the pushers of "junk food."
As I noted in an earlier piece, local governments are already trying to tackle obesity, as well as other perceived public health issues, through land use policy. They are using "health impact assessments" (HIA) to control which types of businesses are allowed to expand in certain areas of their community. Convenience stores are often targeted as "bad actors" in the HIA world due to their food and beverage product lines.
An HIA in San Francisco regulates development by using a Retail Food Environment Index, which is defined as "the ratio of the number of outlets of unhealthy food (i.e., fast-food establishments and convenience stores) to the number of healthy food options such as fruits and vegetables (available at grocery and produce stores)." And in significantly less progressive St. Louis County, Mo., one community brags of the outcome of its HIA: "[P]rior to the opening of the new full-service grocery store in the redevelopment, this area was served by small groceries and convenience stores; of those audited, they did not serve lean cuts of meat, fresh fruit, or low to no-fat dairy."
The Obama Administration is in lock step with what's happening at the local level. Through the First Lady's Let's Move campaign, cities and towns are being encouraged to establish "food policy councils" and to "pass food policies that require food and beverages purchased with government funds to meet certain nutrition standards." Asked in a recent Parade magazine interview what she would like to focus her attentions on should her husband be reelected in November, Michelle Obama set her sights on retailers: "[W]e still need to find a way to impact the nature of food in grocery stores, in terms of sugar, fat, and salt."
Any business that sells such products faces a dilemma as the noose of the Nanny State gets tighter: how to maintain a profitable business when your most profitable items are increasingly harder to sell?
You got rid of the "leaded" gasoline, put the cigarettes under lock and key behind the counter, and chained up the beer cooler on Sundays. Unless the broad spectrum of food retailers – c-stores included – becomes fully engaged in this battle, there will soon come a day when you'll be carding children for candy bars, and profit margins will depend on how many vegan veggie burgers you can sell to long-distance truckers.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service-sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, visit www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.