Bloomberg's Display Ban Faces Strong Opposition

Expert predicts ban would turn tobacco into ‘the new pornography of the corner store’

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

NEW YORK -- Just two days after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intentions to ban tobacco displays in New York City, a multitude of tobacco retailers, manufacturers and industry groups have joined NYACS' Jim Calvin in expressing their opposition to the proposed ban for a variety of reasons, ranging from the ban's violation of the First Amendment to the lack of effect tobacco display bans have had in countries like Canada and Thailand. (See related coverage)

While the Richmond, Va.-based tobacco manufacturer Altria Group Inc. has been supportive of many tobacco-related regulations imposed by the FDA, it believes Bloomberg's plan is too extreme.

"We supported enactment of federal legislation in 2009 that gave FDA the power to regulate tobacco products, including at retail," Altria spokesperson Brian May told Tobacco E-News. "That legislation included a federal ban on sales to persons under the age of 18, and it also included a federal requirement that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products must be sold in a non-self-service manner."

"To the extent that this proposed law would ban the display of products to adult tobacco consumers, we believe it goes too far," he continued.  "For these and numerous other reasons, we oppose the bill."

Executive vice president of the Retail Council of New York State, Ted Potrikus, told The Wall Street Journal that his organization also believes the measure goes too far and will probably oppose the legislation.

"On the surface it raises a lot of concern," he said. "We don't want every store in New York City to turn into Little House on the Prairie … where everything that you want is behind the counter."

NATO's executive director Thomas Briant is more than just concerned that a tobacco display ban in New York City would be too extreme--he believes it would be unconstitutional, especially after a nearly identical measure was overturned in the Village of Haverstraw, N.Y.

"The proposal to require that all tobacco products be inventoried out of the public's view violates a retailer's rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," Briant told Tobacco E-News. "The ban infringes on a retailer's free-speech rights by prohibiting the display of legal tobacco products in a store which, in turn, undermines the ability of retailers to communicate with adult customers about the products through product packaging."

As founding director of the Democracy Institute, Patrick Basham has studied the effect similar tobacco display bans have had in other countries, co-authoring the book Hidden in Plain Sight: Why Tobacco Display Bans Fail and the report "Tobacco Display Bans: A Global Failure." In an article he wrote for The Daily Caller, he called Bloomberg's proposal "unhealthy" based on the lack of impact similar bans have had on smoking rates in countries like Canada, Ireland and Thailand.

"Tobacco display bans may actually increase the allure of tobacco," he said. "By stigmatizing cigarettes as the only widely consumed product that can't be openly displayed, we make them more attractive to teenagers--the new pornography of the corner store. Placing cigarettes out of sight ensures they are put ever more firmly in the 'forbidden fruit' category, so dangerous, so highly regulated and so terribly attractive that the health nannies decree they must literally be hidden under the counter."