Tobacco Display Ban?

As New York county weighs restrictive measure, NYACS fights back

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

WAMPSVILLE, N.Y. -- New York's Madison County Board of Health made waves last week in both the tobacco and convenience store industries when it announced its intentions to ban tobacco product displays.

Though limited to Madison County, the tobacco display ban would be a first in the U.S., one modeled after countrywide bans in Canada, Ireland and Norway.

Citing research from these countries, Madison County's Board of Health believes the ban will result in fewer underage smokers.

There is, however, a critical difference between Madison County and the countries they seem to imitate. Namely, Native-American lands.

Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS), pointed out Indian-run stores like SavOn are exempt from such laws. And that customers may simply flock to nearby tribal lands to buy their tobacco items.

"The ban would drive more business to the tax-free side of the street," said Calvin. "If customers can't see the product, they're not going to stop smoking--they'll go where they can see it. Probably someplace like SavOn, where no state or county tax will be collected. Our stores lose business and the state and county lose revenue."

Calvin isn't the only one complaining about this inconsistency--several c-store owners have voiced concerns that a ban of their top-selling inside category would place them at an extreme competitive disadvantage. County officials have assured local businesses that if the Madison County Board of Supervisors passes the ban, it would be enforced at all convenience stores, pointing out that they've recently enacted regulations on SavOn stores to test their gas pumps the same way all Madison County pumps are tested.

While Calvin applauds the effort, he's quick to point out that they didn't quite force these rules on SavOn's Oneida Nation. "The gas pump testing was something they negotiated on a limited basis and on different terms than the rest of us," he told Tobacco E-News. "It's not uniform enforcement, and it's not fair."  

Even more unfair is the scenario Calvin sees playing out should Madison County adopt the ban.

Say someone driving from Albany gets off the Canastota exit of I-90 to buy a pack of cigarettes. On one side of the exit there's a Sunoco, on the other side a SavOn. Under the proposed law, this customer would go into the Sunoco and not see any cigarettes--someone unaware of the ban could easily assume the Sunoco was tobacco free. At the SavOn, he'd be greeted by cartons of cigarettes as far as the eye can see. Although they'd be Indian-made brands, any employee would gladly explain how they smoke the same as Marlboro's for a fraction of the cost.

"We're drowning in double standards as it is," Calvin said. "And now Madison County wants to make it worse by making us hide products we have been licensed to sell, giving our customers yet another reason to go down the road to the reservation? Are you kidding me?"