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NEW YORK -- A new study involving shopping inside a virtual reality convenience store suggests that teenagers may be less likely to attempt to purchase cigarettes at c-stores when they are not sold in plain sight behind the counter, according to a Reuters Health report. The New York State Department of Health funded the study.
"We know the retail environment is a very important place for tobacco companies to advertise and market their products," stated Annice Kim, of independent research institute RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "They're prominently displayed at the point of sale, and it exposes all customers, including kids."
While the village of West Haverstraw, N.Y., planned to ban the display of tobacco products earlier this year before repealing the local law, no retailers have banned such displays. So to test the effects of removing tobacco displays, Kim and her team designed a virtual reality that featured a simulated online convenience store.
More than 1,200 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 were asked to select four items in the store: a snack from the aisles, a drink from the coolers and two products of their choice from the checkout counter, according to Reuters Health. In some of the scenarios, the cabinet behind the counter displayed cigarettes, and in some the cabinet was closed and the display was covered up. If they asked the cashier for cigarettes, they were denied due to their age.
Depending on other changes they made to the virtual store, the team found that 16 to 24 percent of participants attempted to buy tobacco products when the display was open, compared to 9 to 11 percent who made the same attempt when it was closed. A post-virtual shopping survey indicated that whether the tobacco products were openly displayed was not clearly tied to participants' perception of how easy it would be to buy tobacco products if a similar store existed in their neighborhood, according to the report.
"Policies that require retailers to store tobacco products out of view... could have a positive public health impact," Kim stated. She added that the study would have to be considered alongside other evaluations of the display restrictions before policy recommendations could be made.
Boston University School of Public Health's Dr. Michael Siegel, who was not involved in the study, stated that he believes there is strong justification for hiding tobacco displays, but that this study does not necessarily add weight to that argument.
"It certainly shows that tobacco displays get people to think about cigarettes, which is what they're for," Siegel told Reuters Health. "It can't be extrapolated into real life, because in real life kids would go to a store when they want to buy cigarettes. I don't know how many situations there are when a kid is hanging out in a convenience store with nothing to do and says, 'Oh, I'll just try a cigarette as long as they're here.'"
Siegel suggested that the primary difference a display ban would make is that children and teenagers would not be exposed to tobacco marketing.