Boston Area - tobacco signs more plentful in city's poorer areas..

August 31, 2010 -

More signs: *Convenience Store Update - hanging tobacco signs from the ceiling..

A dozen years after Massachusetts attempted to ban storefront tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, a prohibition thwarted by a tobacco company’s legal challenge, the signs remain prolific and prominent in Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods, especially those with substantial African-American and Hispanic populations.

But now, empowered by Congress to regulate tobacco companies, the Food and Drug Administration is taking steps that could rein in the pastel-hued signs that industry foes say entice young customers to start smoking.

With cigarette advertising banished from the airwaves and largely absent from billboards, storefronts are some of the last bastions of tobacco marketing. The continued presence of the ads is a testament, researchers said, to the deep reach of cigarette makers in poorer communities, where merchants said company representatives sometimes personally attach ads to store exteriors.

Researchers found in 2003 and 2004 that roughly 4 of every 10 dollars spent on tobacco marketing went to store signs, payments to retailers for prime shelf space, and displays inside shops. In some cases, shopkeepers received thousands of dollars through tobacco manufacturer incentive programs. And the more tobacco promotions children encounter, the greater the risk they will start smoking, Massachusetts scientists reported in 2006. It is no secret that ad dollars are disproportionately spent in poorer neighborhoods, said researchers, pointing to studies from the past 15 years.

The researchers, who canvassed storefronts from November 2007 to February 2008, also discovered that stores in Dorchester were more likely to advertise prices and that the prices were lower than in Brookline. In the Dorchester ZIP code covered by the study, 02124, the median family income was $38,203; 18 percent of Dorchester adults smoke regularly. In Brookline, where the median income was $92,993, the smoking rate was only 6.5 percent.

In 1996, the FDA first asserted regulatory jurisdiction over tobacco companies, including advertising, but a court ruled that the federal agency was overstepping its authority. Two years later, Massachusetts attempted to restrict storefront ads. Tobacco maker Lorillard sued, and the US Supreme Court sided with the company.

Last year, the FDA won the power to regulate tobacco companies under a landmark law passed by Congress. The agency, after soliciting public comments, is weighing what to do about ads on the exterior walls and grounds of retailers, a spokeswoman said.

Reference: Tobacco signs still target city’s poorer areas by Stephen Smith, The Boston Globe, 8/30/2010.

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