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    You Gotta Fight

    As tobacco legislation increasingly threatens the convenience industry's right to profit, retailers need to work on their defense.

    By Mehgan Belanger

    It's happening across the country -- legislators are scheming ways to bring the convenience industry to its knees through anti-cigarette legislation. That may be an exaggeration, but it is not far fetched to think the slew of state level proposals concerning the industry's top-selling in-store product will not seriously impair c-store success if signed into law.

    But what can convenience retailers do about tobacco-related bills that will resonate with lawmakers?

    The answer: fight.

    One path is through trade associations, including the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO), which provides retailers methods to fight legislation -- including state excise tax increases, anti-smoking measures and legal smoking age increases -- on the state and federal levels. The association monitored more than 200 tobacco-related bills considered by state lawmakers in 2007, and saw an 80 percent success rate in defeating those measures, according to the group's executive director, Tom Briant.

    NATO's alert system notifies members of pending bills, provides the associated elected officials' contact information and gives talking points to discuss with legislators, Briant said. Retail members also receive personalized letters, as well as alert sheets to distribute to customers.

    Additionally, local trade associations provide assistance, such as the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS), which is very active on the tobacco front, advocating for a level playing field regarding taxes among c-stores, Native American and Internet retailers. In addition to member updates that detail pending legislation, NYACS offers retailers the chance to forge relationships with elected officials.

    "We have a legislative conference at the state capital every year in January, where retailers help us communicate our agenda for the coming year to the members of the legislature," association President Jim Calvin said. The group also has a political action committee, where retailers meet with elected officials to discuss top-of-mind issues.

    For federal level issues, retailers can turn to NACS: The Association of Convenience and Petroleum Retailing, which offers materials on its Web site, including digital letters, according to John Eichberger, NACS vice president of government relations.

    While online tools can be both effective and convenient when fighting legislation, a personal approach may make an even more lasting impression on lawmakers.

    "Meet with them, introduce yourself and make yourself available as a resource. They need input from back home, and it means a lot if you have insight on what's going on," Eichberger said. If a meeting is not possible, send a letter, he advised. And NATO's Briant said as little as 10 phone calls to an elected official can make a difference.

    "Retailers can no longer live by the 80/20 rule where 80 percent of the retailers nationwide do not become involved," he said. "Rather, 80 percent of the retailers need to become more active so our collective voice against tobacco legislation can be heard even louder."

    If 80 percent of the 146,294 c-stores in the U.S. sent just one letter, it would equal more than 117,000 voices weighing in on an issue -- and surely a good defense to the ever-increasing tobacco legislation.

    Get Involved Now
    -- NACS offers electronic letters, contact information and a grassroots team at www.nacsonline.com/takeaction.
    -- NATO fights federal and state level issues through www.natocentral.org and can be reached at (866) 869-8888.
    -- A list of regional and state associations can be found at www.csnews.com/resources/regional.
    -- Philip Morris' legislative action center provides resources on pending issues for all 50 states at www.pmusalac.com.
    -- It only takes three minutes to fight pending legislation through R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s www.nocigtax.com.

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