NEW YORK -- While retailers expressed concern over the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA's) recent proposals to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, as well as restrict e-cigarette sales in retail stores, a new survey revealed retailers are adopting a “wait and see” attitude, believing they have time before any real mandates come to pass, according to an industry analyst.
In its Tobacco Talk survey released Nov. 26, Bonnie Herzog, managing director of consumer equity research for Wells Fargo Securities, New York, said most respondents disapproved of the FDA’s proposed initiatives. Of the respondents who represent 55,000 convenience stores, 90% believed that if carried out, the proposals would negatively impact their businesses.
Responding retailers called the proposals “far too extreme,” an “overreach” of authority and “knee-jerk,” Herzog said.
Here are several insights from the survey ...
Downward trends with cigarettes
Retailers indicated their total cigarette volume was down 3.5% in October, which was the same percentage during that period a year ago.
Reasons for cigarette volume weakness include the following:
- Ongoing smoker conversion to e-cigarettes and vapor, as well as an increase in “dual use,” or consumers using more than one form of nicotine-delivery method.
- Price elasticities and some “sticker shock” following cigarette manufacturers’ 10-cent-per-pack list price increase in September.
- General category pressures, such as smoking bans in public places and changing societal views on combustible products.
- A combination of cold weather, rising gas prices and “downtrading,” where value-conscious consumers purchase discount cigarettes over premium due to pricing concerns. Herzog said that a few retailers expected some of the economic pressure on consumers could ease as gas prices in the latter part of 2018 continue to fall.
Time mediates menthol concerns
While the FDA’s pronouncements on banning menthol in cigarettes could ultimately be a huge negative for the industry, according to the majority of Herzog’s contacts, many recognize there are multiple steps and numerous years—possibly four or five years—before a menthol ban would occur, if ever.
“Bottom line: We are in the early innings of what we expect will be a long, divisive—and likely litigious—battle to arrive at an enforceable FDA strategy,” she said.
Wait-and-see on e-cigarettes
The FDA’s recent action to restrict e-cigarette flavors shouldn’t have a material impact on sales in stores given their relative size within the category and how most retailers are taking a “wait and see” approach before implementing any broad set of in-store changes, Herzog said.
However, retailers surveyed expressed concern. Here are several findings:
- Nearly 80% of retailers disagree with the FDA’s decision to enforce age-restricted access points within the store, with several of Herzog’s contacts noting this action benefits major tobacco manufacturers vs. newer companies such as San Francisco-based Juul Labs on a relative basis.
- Nearly 90% of retailers expect their business to be negatively affected as a result of the FDA actions, despite e-cigarettes being a relatively small contribution (less than 3%) to overall in-store sales. Herzog said one retailer noted, “Although Juul is a big part of the e-cigarette category—its relation to the total nicotine category is less than 2% of revenue—I believe there will be a lot of change over to mint and menthol with many smokers reverting back to combustibles.”
- Most retailers (more than 50%) have no immediate plans to implement significant changes in their stores or to their current sales practices.