Convenience store promos exploit loophole to lure kids, poor, minorities, survey says
by: JIM CLARK, Grant High student Jonathan Cordeta (right)  believes tobacco companies are targeting their ads toward young people like him.  Anti-smoking advocate Yugen Rashard (left) says the numbers confirm Cordeta’s suspicion.

Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Cordeta is standing outside the Going Street Market, a convenience store in North Portland, feeling like a target.

He's a target, he says, for the tobacco companies.

Yugen Rashad, program coordinator for the African American Tobacco Prevention and Education Network, is standing next to Cordeta with the numbers he says confirm Cordeta's suspicion that tobacco companies are targeting children and blacks with advertising intended to lure them into becoming smokers.

Over four months in 2006, the network's volunteers, Cordeta among them, visited more than 100 convenience stores in Portland and found plenty of cigarette ads - an average of almost 17 ads per store.

The network's survey, released last week, also found that more than eight out of 10 convenience stores offered discounts on tobacco products. In addition, nearly two out of three had tobacco advertising placed at children's eye level, and within a foot of candy and toys.

'It's a deliberate marketing strategy,' Rashad says. 'Usually in these ma and pa stores those are the No. 1 revenue makers - alcohol and tobacco.'

Kelly Stoner, spokeswoman for the state-operated Oregon Tobacco Prevention and Education Program, says Rashad's survey took her by surprise.

'We expected to see tobacco ads in stores,' Stoner says. 'We did not expect to see so many. There seems to be a pattern. Inevitably it's right next to the register, right next to the candy, where kids are going to be looking.'

Company denies charges

Cathryn Cushing, tobacco cessation and communications specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services, says the product placement might be a reaction to a settlement the tobacco companies made in 1998 with 46 state attorneys general, including Oregon's.

In that agreement, Cushing says, the tobacco companies agreed not to market to children. Cigarette billboards were banned, cartoon characters in cigarette advertising were banned, brand-name sponsorship of events aimed at kids was banned.

'We've told them (tobacco companies) you can't advertise, but one way to advertise is to figure out where kids go,' Cushing says. 'Kids go and they buy their lunch and their pop at convenience stores. They spend a lot of time there. It makes sense.'

It makes sense, Cushing says, because studies show that 90 percent of adult smokers begin at or before age 19. 'Very few adults actually start smoking,' she says.

David Howard, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem, N.C., says his company is not targeting youths. 'No we are not,' Howard says. 'The bottom line is children should not smoke. Period. End of discussion.'

Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Store Owners, says there's another explanation for the multitude of cigarette posters stuck on the walls and windows of convenience stores. The stores need to show what they've got and the cost.

'Cigarette customers are like gas customers,' Lenard says. 'They're very price-sensitive.'

Lenard says the typical convenience store must carry about 220 different types of cigarettes because smokers are choosy and brand-loyal.

'I can't tell you whether the ads are displayed at eye level or not, but the point of advertising in convenience stores for cigarettes is not to convince nonsmokers to become smokers,' Lenard says. 'People don't walk up, look at an ad and decide they're going to become a smoker.'

But they do walk up to convenience stores and decide that's where they're going to get their smokes, according to the association's numbers.

'Convenience stores sell most of the cigarettes in the country,' Lenard says.

Smokes provide steady sales

There are 140,000 convenience stores in the United States, according to Lenard, 1,581 of them in Oregon. About 63 percent of cigarettes sold in the U.S. are sold in convenience stores, according to an association study. Thirty-four percent of all purchases in convenience stores are cigarettes.

Supermarket sales of cigarettes are down, Lenard says, because they can't display the ads and products well. Drugstores used to carry cigarettes, but most don't anymore. Which has left the convenience stores to compete on price, Lenard says.

As for the accusation that the cigarette ads are placed near children's products, Lenard says, 'Most stores do have candy at the register, and most stores do have cigarettes at the register.'

Rashad isn't buying the excuse.

He also says that not only are the ads targeting youths, but they're targeting blacks as well. Rashad says the brands that are most popular among blacks - mentholated cigarettes - are more heavily advertised in convenience stores.

And, he says, low-income and black neighborhoods have a heavier concentration of convenience stores.

'If you look at any of these stores in lower socioeconomic areas you're going to find the heaviest concentration of African Americans, and that's where you're going to find this volume of advertising and that's not an accident,' Rashad says.

Activist pushes posters

Rashad says he's going to start asking owners of the convenience stores in North and Northeast Portland to replace at least one cigarette ad with a sign his group has put together warning youths about smoking.

Lucy Longoria, disparities program liaison for the state tobacco prevention and education program, says Rashad probably is right - the tobacco companies are marketing to blacks. But they're marketing to a number of minorities, Longoria says.

'We've seen across the board not just targeting that is broad and basic and one message,' Longoria says. 'They do a lot of work to make sure their message resonates with particular communities.'

Targeted marketing is how the tobacco companies do business, Longoria says. 'I am confident that the African-American community is being targeted as are many communities, including low-income communities. We've seen campaigns targeting lesbian and gay communities and Asian communities.'

Cordeta says many convenience stores in his neighborhood are more than willing to illegally sell cigarettes to teens. And he says that kids think that stores with more cigarette posters are more likely to sell to them.

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