How to Cut Teens' Desire for Cigarettes: Hide Them

Experiments in a convenience store laboratory suggest the influence of the "tobacco power wall."
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(Photo: Pabak Sarkar/Flickr)

(Photo: Pabak Sarkar/Flickr)

In the decades that followed a crackdown on cigarette advertising—especially those aimed at kids—we saw a noticeable decline in teenage smoking, yet the number of adolescents who smoke, chew, and vape remains surprisingly high. Now, researchers may have found a way to cut those numbers even further: hide the cigarettes. Specifically, hide the tobacco "power wall," now ubiquitous in convenience stores—doing so could cut the proportion of teens at risk for smoking in half.

Nearly one in 10 high school students has smoked in the last month, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, and so has one in 40 middle school kids. In 2014, the CDC estimates, one quarter of all high school students and about eight percent of middle schoolers used some kind of tobacco product. But with tobacco advertising now tightly restricted and anti-smoking campaigns having mixed effects, what simple measures can policymakers and public-health officials take to reduce young people's demand for nicotine?

Perhaps, argues a team led by William Shadel, it'd be a good idea to target one of the last bastions of tobacco advertising: that onslaught of colorful posters and slogans that greets customers just inside convenience stores across America, also called the power wall. This isn't the first time scientists have studied the marketing power of that display, and it isn't the first time people have called for its demise.

In 2014, one quarter of all high school students and about eight percent of middle schoolers used some kind of tobacco product.

But Shadel and his colleagues had a novel approach to understanding the power wall's temptations: They built a well-stocked, mid-size convenience store inside an office building in Pittsburgh, and had 241 kids between the ages of 11 and 17 visit the store under three different conditions. For a third of the kids, the convenience store was set up like most, with the power wall, comprising a cigarette case and advertisements, behind the cashier. For another third, the wall was placed to the side. For the final third, the cigarette case was covered up, and the only indication of what lay within was a letter-sized sheet of paper with the words "TOBACCO SOLD HERE" printed on it.

Before kids went into the store, around 15 percent indicated there was a chance they'd consider smoking. Whether the power wall was behind the cashier or to the side, the display had a seductive power—after they emerged from the faux-convenience store, around 30 percent of kids who'd seen the display reported there was now some chance they'd try out smoking in the near future. The remaining third remained unchanged in their attitudes—as expected, given the fact they couldn't even see a pack of cigarettes.

"[S]usceptibility to future cigarette smoking ... is a potent predictor of future smoking among adolescents," the researchers write, suggesting that limiting the visibility of cigarettes and tobacco ads in convenience stores could further reduce teen smoking. In light of recent tobacco-industry victories, translating those findings into action will not be easy, but this study could help inform regulatory decisions moving forward, the team writes.

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