PHILADELPHIA -- A high-profile convenience-store retailer is taking on the City of Brotherly Love, as health officials there seek to change permit policies to curtail the number of tobacco retailers in its neighborhoods, according to The Philadelphia Business Journal.
Wawa Inc., which has been aggressively expanding in the Center City area of Philadelphia, said it may stop opening new stores if a series of proposed regulations relating to tobacco retailing are adopted. The Wawa, Pa.-based chain opened its Broad Street location in the city with much fanfare earlier this year.
For its part, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health Department is seeking ways to curb smoking in the city and keep young people from starting. The city has a 22.4% rate of smoking compared with 16.8% nationally, the Journal reported, as well as having twice as many tobacco retailers compared with other major cities with most of them in low-income areas and near schools, the Journal reported.
In analyzing how it can address the issue, the Health Department focused on retail. Its three main proposals are:
- Increasing tobacco permit and renewal fees to $300 from $50.
- Limiting the number of tobacco-selling permits an area, defined by population, can have.
- If a retailer is found to have sold tobacco to a minor three times within two years, its permit to sell tobacco will be suspended for a year.
- Restrict retailers selling tobacco products from operating within 500 feet of a K-through-12 school.
“A child going into the corner store to get a snack or a drink, they see this wall of tobacco and marketing of tobacco in with the candy,” Cheryl Bettigole, director of chronic disease prevention for the Health Department, told the Journal. “Most people will start smoking in their teens and early adulthood, which is why the tobacco industry does this. It’s not surprising you have high tobacco use.”
In a letter to the Health Department, Christopher Gheysens, president and CEO of Wawa, said the proposed regulations were unclear and needed more clarity, the Journal reported.
“If finalized as written, the proposed regulation would negatively affect economic growth within the City of Philadelphia, specifically it would stop all future Wawa store growth,” Gheysens wrote.
Gheysens also wrote that Wawa does its part to be responsible when it comes to the sale of tobacco to minors. It has 36 of its convenience stores in the city and trains its employees on laws regarding the sale of tobacco to those who are underage.
The Health Department held hearings on the proposed rules and heard from a series of people on both sides of the issue. While Wawa was one of the biggest retailers to speak out, it wasn’t alone. The Journal reported that Mijul Patel said he bought a 7-Eleven in the city in 2014 and is fearful the new rules would make business more challenging.
“I invested everything I have to feed my family and six employees and their [families],” he wrote to the Health Department.
Not long after he bought the business, a $2 cigarette tax was implemented and then another $1 state tax was put in place. An increase in tobacco permit fees and a cap on licenses will hurt his business, Patel wrote.
Wawa, along with other retailers, made several suggestions to the board of health that would modify the proposed rules as they have been written. Among the recommendations Wawa put forth are to:
- Delay the density limits rule, which limits permits to a defined population area, by five years.
- Make the renewal of existing tobacco permits not subject to new density requirements.
- Clarify when is the earliest a retailer can apply for a tobacco permit and when it will be issued.
- Create a waiting list for obtaining new permits.
- Explain what type of Census data will be used in calculating the density of an area so that workforce and residential population are separated.
“We have a great working relationship with the city and the [Mayor Jim] Kenney administration,” Lori Bruce, a Wawa spokesperson, told the Journal. “We have been discussing the impact of the proposed regulation and are encouraged by the dialogue we’ve had.”
No decisions have been made on the suggestions, the news source said.