Local Municipalities Become Ground Zero in Tobacco Wars

New anti-tobacco strategies infiltrating lawmaking

By 
Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

Even though the Republican Party won major victories in last fall’s elections, retailers must stay vigilant around their core in-store category. New anti-tobacco strategies are infiltrating lawmaking, say sources tracking these measures.

And though movement on the federal level grabs headlines, retailers need to focus on proposed ordinances introduced at the local and municipal levels, according to Eric Barker, senior manager of local government affairs for Altria Client Services, Richmond, Va. He says anti-tobacco groups often put their efforts into small towns as a way of creating precedent for larger campaigns. The upside: It’s also where retailers can have the most influence.

In reviewing recent anti-tobacco strategies, Barker says such groups have pushed tactics such as raising the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21, banning flavored products and restricting business permits on retailers selling tobacco.

“Big trends occur on the federal and state level, but we also see [for new regulation] a lot of activity with municipalities,” Barker says. It’s where retailers “can play an important part in larger legislative trends.”

The number of local ordinances against tobacco have increased almost threefold in recent years, going from 248 in 2011 to a projected 670 for 2016, according to the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO), Minneapolis.

Tom Briant, executive director of NATO, points to a “perfect storm” of trends that have redirected focus to local lawmakers. These trends include ongoing federal funding for anti-tobacco groups, and those groups’ reaction to the federal government and states failing to gain momentum around key initiatives.

The best advocates at the local level are retailers within the community, Briant says.

“[These retailers] have more influence on the actions of city councils and town or county boards than outsiders,” he says. “They may also know members of their local boards, so their influence is higher.”

While San Francisco-area retailer Tom Robinson agrees that operators like him are closer to local government, he remains concerned. New regulation will most likely “occur in a blue city in a blue state [like mine], whether it’s about menthol or licensing,” says Robinson, president of Robinson Oil Co., Santa Clara, Calif. “But I continue to scratch my head to find a good solution, because even if you’re active in city A … you may operate in cities B, C and D—where you don’t know anyone.”

Anti-tobacco strategists are focusing on a few areas:

Permit restrictions: In many communities, local councils and boards have long had jurisdiction over zoning and permitting. Briant says many already prohibit the sale of tobacco products within 500 to 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and churches. Other municipalities issue sales licenses that, if limited, can curtail new-store development.

In Philadelphia this past fall, the city board of health moved on a measure to limit the number of retailers selling tobacco to one per 1,000 residents within each city planning district. The rules would also ban new tobacco retailers within 500 feet of a school.

Though retailers already selling tobacco near schools will be grandfathered in, owners who decide to later sell those stores won’t have their licenses renewed.

That resale rule essentially devalues the business, Briant says, because 40% of in-store sales at convenience stores are tobacco products.

“This is a way to get at your business and the value of your business,” says Kerry Paulson, regional director for the eastern region for Altria. In many towns, a few council members in a closed room can issue these rules, Paulson says. “There can be transparency issues at the local level.”

Flavor bans: On the federal level, flavors are banned for cigarettes with the exception of menthol and related flavors of mint and wintergreen. No such ban exists for cigars, e-cigarettes, pipe tobacco, e-liquids and OTP, but approximately 100 flavor bans exist at the local level around the country, says Barker of Altria: “It’s still a hot-button issue that we’ll see pick up on the local level.”

Any ban on flavored-tobacco products beyond cigarettes would affect 70 to 80 SKUs, says Briant of NATO.

“The result will be customers going to buy those products in other markets, taking their purchases of food, gas and [other products] with them,” he says.

Also, some towns, cities and counties have reached back to ban menthol. Yolo and Santa Clara counties in California included menthol in their bans. New York banned menthol, and Chicago put a menthol ban on stores close to schools.

“The issue is bubbling,” Barker says.

Tobacco 21: When Liberty, Mo., approved raising the legal purchasing age for tobacco products this past fall, the Tobacco 21 movement hit a milestone, with Liberty joining at least 200 other cities and counties across the United States to enact laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

At press time, lawmakers in Columbus, Ohio, and Naperville, Ill., were considering such age increases.

“The Tobacco 21 movement is a [campaign] to reduce tobacco use and help make the next generation tobacco-free,” says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C.

In addition to the 200 cities and counties in 14 states, California and Hawaii have enacted statewide laws raising the tobacco age to 21. Major cities that have done so include New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and both Kansas City in Missouri and Kansas. Statewide legislation is under consideration in several other states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, as well as in Washington, D.C., Myers said.

“We support a minimum age of 18 for the sale of all tobacco products, as established in the federal Tobacco Control Act of 2009. That statute required the FDA to study the public health implications of increasing the minimum age,” Barker says. “It’s our position that states and localities should give Congress time to evaluate this issue before enacting different minimum-age laws.”

As a tobacco retailer, Robinson is pessimistic about the regulatory pipeline: “It will get much worse before it gets better.”