ATLANTA — With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcing studies possibly linking illnesses and at least 18 deaths to vaping, scrutiny has fallen upon c-store retailers to make sure they check IDs and keep tobacco products and e-cigarettes out of the hands of minors, said Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations for NACS.
During an educational session at the NACS Show in Atlanta, he said part of that solution is to use tools and programs from Arlington, Va.-based We Card Program, which offers online role playing and training as well as calendars and posters to help cashiers communicate store policies to consumers.
Selling age-restricted products is a complex task, Beckwith told retailers at the session. One of the issues comes with states, cities or municipalities raising the minimum buying age for tobacco products from 18 to 21. “In many states, the legal age goes up, but customers don’t know it,” he said. “Yesterday a customer was of legal age, and today, he’s not. There’s a need for guidance for the associate in those situations.”
Another concern Beckwith raised was that FDA officials have focused on retailers—even responsible ones—as being a source of tobacco for minors. While c-store supporters point to the FDA’s own research that names “social sources” such as family, friends or other adults as a primary method for minors getting age-restricted products, Beckwith said Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner who left the post in the spring, cited “enterprising 18-year-olds” who purchase tobacco products for minors getting them at retail outlets such as c-stores. “We are in the crosshairs,” Beckwith said.
Retailers who suspect that an adult is buying products for an underage user can decline to sell product to that adult, said Doug Anderson, president of We Card Program. The program offers such tips in its curriculum of best practices, which is based on the FDA’s own guidelines, Anderson said.
Scrutiny over flavored e-cigarettes has caused a dip in volume in recent weeks for vaping products even though the category is still on the rise overall, according to a researcher leading a separate NACS educational session.
Also addressing characteristics of retailers who appear to be growing the tobacco category in controversial times, Don Burke, senior vice president of Management Science Associates (MSA), Pittsburgh, told attendees that despite slight recent declines, vaping product volume movement is up from a year ago and “still growing.”
In recent weeks, federal health officials have raised concerns over the safety of e-cigarettes, while at least three states have taken executive action to ban certain vaping products.
Burke projected the bulk of the tobacco category—cigarettes—to fall in volume 5.5% to 6% for the year as opposed to a typical 3% to 5% (as the industry has seen in past years). However, Burke did forecast a more “normalized” decline in cigarette volume for 2020 at about 3.9%. He based that number on historic trends that encompass multiyear cycles.
Burke also highlighted other MSA studies about the effects on retailers of increasing excise taxes and banning flavors such as menthol. Generally, he said, while sales at affected stores decreased, stores in surrounding areas saw matching increases in sales. Consumers don’t stop using these products, as public health officials have hoped; Burke said they simply went elsewhere for what they wanted.
Tobacco was also a popular topic at other educational sessions. During a panel on data analysis and promotions, Ruth Ann Lilly, senior category manager for GPM Investments, Richmond, Va., said tobacco as a category often provides the financial incentive to invest in technology.
With tobacco being a high-cost product, having technology to examine all aspects of the category is becoming more important, she said. “There are new situations with e-vapor, where states like Michigan, New York and Massachusetts are trying to kill the category,” Lilly said of the three states that have imposed some type of e-cigarette ban. “We’re going to have to figure out the impact [using data].”
Lilly cited an example of her company using data after San Francisco-based Juul pulled four flavored vaping pods from the market last fall. “We were surprised when customers migrated to mint and menthol,” she said.