Oregon pushes back on tobacco industry presence in stores

A mother and daughter walking by tobacco ads

Quick Summary

The Oregon Health Authority recently set out to assess what tobacco retail marketing looks like in Oregon. The results show how the tobacco industry targets its marketing squarely at teens, young adults and people trying to quit tobacco. Today, the Place Matters Oregon blog describes the tactics used by the tobacco industry, in every nook and cranny of our community stores, to push its dangerous products.

You know that feeling when someone points out something you’ve never noticed in a place…but from that point on, you can’t help but see it all the time? 

That’s what’s happening in Oregon, as communities are taking notice of the tobacco industry’s presence in their daily lives. For decades, the tobacco industry has been spending millions of dollars annually to shape the experience of every person who walks through a convenience or grocery store on a regular basis – in other words, all of us. Each year in Oregon alone, tobacco companies spend more than $100 million to market their products. Most of this money pours into the stores where we, and our kids, shop daily for food and beverages.

Over 100 million dollars per year is how much the tobacco industry spends to push its products in Oregon stores

The industry targets specific communities more than others, perpetuating tobacco-related health disparities. Starting in the 1970s, the tobacco industry latched onto the Black and African American community’s preference for menthol cigarettes. It stole themes of Black empowerment and identity to create the “Kool” brand and other types of advertisements. It saturated Black and African American magazines and neighborhoods with ads that made smoking menthols seem like part of the community’s culture and experience.

The difference now: We’re onto them.  

Numbers make the invisible, visible

Recently, our team at the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) set out to assess what tobacco retail marketing and advertising look like in Oregon. We worked with local health department staff and volunteers to conduct this comprehensive assessment, ultimately visiting and gathering data from nearly 2,000 stores. 

Our findings make the invisible health hazards in our stores, visible. They reveal and quantify the tactics used by the tobacco industry, in every nook and cranny of our community stores, to sell its dangerous products. They document how the industry targets its marketing squarely at teens, young adults and people trying to quit tobacco. 

Teens hanging outside of a quickie mart. One girl is looking at a large tobacco advertisement.

A few highlights (or maybe it’s “lowlights”) from the report – and why they matter: 

  • Nine out of 10 tobacco retailers in Oregon sold fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigarettes or cigarillos. The industry knows that kids and teens love flavors. Sweet tobacco is designed to hook youth and to generate new customers for a deadly product.   
  • Nearly 6 out of 10 (57%) tobacco retailers that sold cigarillos or small cigars advertised them for less than $1. The industry makes these products cheap so that even the youngest customers can afford them. When tobacco is cheap, teens and young adults are more likely to buy it. 
  • Nearly 2 out of 3 tobacco retailers discounted at least one tobacco product. Discounts and promotions encourage tobacco purchases among teens, young adults, and people with low incomes. These pricing tactics are designed also to spark nicotine cravings and generate impulse tobacco purchases among people trying to quit. 
A variety of fruit- and candy-flavored cigarillos with discounted sale stickers.

These tactics can’t be dismissed simply as “a business being a business.” The tobacco industry is actively manipulating Oregonians, especially kids and young people. And we don’t have to accept it.

As Dr. Allison Myers, a tobacco expert at Oregon State University, notes in the video, “Hidden Health Hazards at Your Corner Store,” there are lots of ways to counter the tobacco industry’s predatory presence in Oregon stores. We can reshape those environments to promote health and life, by placing limits on addictive products that kill.

Solutions that work

From Clackamas to Malheur counties and from Pendleton to Cottage Grove, communities across the state are already working on changing the retail environment to protect kids and help people quit tobacco. One of the most crucial solutions is to require stores to get a license to sell tobacco products. 

Oregon is one of only nine states that don’t require a license to sell tobacco, the leading cause of preventable death. Requiring a license makes it easier to enforce laws prohibiting sales to kids and teens. It also creates opportunities to limit the density of tobacco retailers, including near schools, and to limit the sale of cheap, flavored products. A few Oregon counties already require tobacco retail licensing. How can your community work together to protect kids this way? 

Group of teens walking into a convenience store

Oregonians don’t have to accept being influenced every day in our stores and daily lives by companies that are bent on selling us, and our kids, products that they know are harmful, and in some cases, deadly. 

Now that the invisible is increasingly visible, it should move us to act. Oregon has the facts. We just need the will. 

Sarah Wylie, MPH, is an interim Manager of the Tobacco Retail License Program / Health Promotion Strategist, Oregon Health Authority, Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention


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