Disparities in Point-of-Sale Advertising and Retailer Density
The tobacco industry uses common marketing techniques to sell their products to specific communities. Marketing for any product includes advertisements based on demographics, but for a product with significant negative health impacts, like tobacco, focusing on a particular audience creates health disparities that further impact communities that are already hindered by social inequity.
The tobacco industry’s advertisements for communities of color (Black and Latino), low income communities, and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer) communities are often capitalizing off of stereotypes or shallow perceptions of culture, and these marketing ploys work. Despite an overall decline in smoking since 1964, higher rates of smoking exist among individuals of specific racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.
R.J. Reynold’s “Menthol Push” into African-American neighborhoods and Project SCUM’s targeting of the LGBTQ & homeless communities in San Francisco both demonstrate the power of tobacco marketing initiatives.
In addition to marketing efforts, tobacco products are more accessible in low income Black communities. These communities often have high density of tobacco retailers that have more advertisements, and sell tobacco products at lower prices than in more affluent communities. Learn more about tobacco as an “Unequal Opportunity Killer”.
Disparities in Smoking Rates by Education & Income
The tobacco industry’s level of sophistication and persistence in targeting individuals of specific ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds has resulted in higher rates of smoking among these groups.
The CDC’s 2016 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) shows that individuals with less education are more likely to be current cigarette smokers. The MMWR reports that in 2015, 15.1% of people 18 and older were current smokers.
Looking at smoking rate by education in those 25 and older,
34.1% of individuals with a GED were current smokers
7.4% of those holding an undergraduate degree were current smokers
3.6% of those with a graduate degree were current smokers
Education level and income level are linked, meaning the higher education attained, the more income received over time.
Smoker data analyzed by income level indicate that:
26.1% of individuals living below the poverty line currently smoke
13.9% of individuals living at or above the poverty line currently smoke
Another 2016 study from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that income can be the major determining factor of retailer density, given that higher income communities of underrepresented groups have a lower rate of tobacco retailers than low income communities of the same racial demographic.
According to the study:
Prince George's County, MD has a 67.5% Black population, an average income of about $77,000 per year and an average of 3.94 tobacco outlets per 1000 persons per tract.
Baltimore, MD has a 65.3% Black population, an average income of about $43,500 per year, and an average of 7.95 tobacco outlets per 1000 persons per tract.
Uneven distribution of tobacco retailers and disproportionate exposure to tobacco advertising contributes to disparities in smoking rates. High tobacco retailer density in a given community makes it easier for consumers to purchase the harmful product and be exposed to the industry’s persuasive marketing.
For more information on Smoking Rate Disparities check out the following:
Disparities in Retailer Density & Advertising by Targeted Group
To explore the relationship between tobacco retailer density and community characteristics, researchers identified and mapped over 300,000 tobacco retailers across the US. Findings indicate higher density of tobacco retailers in communities with higher percentages of African-Americans, individuals living below the poverty line, or women older than 25 without a high school diploma.[2, 6] Even while controlling for population size, there were 32% more tobacco retailers in urban areas than non-urban areas. For every 1% increase in the number of families living below the poverty line, there was a .83% increase in tobacco retailer density for that community. Findings from international studies suggest that this strategy of disproportionately exposing communities of particular racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds to POS tobacco advertising is not unique to the US alone. An analysis of Western Australia found that there are more tobacco retailers in communities with a lower socioeconomic status than in areas with a higher socioeconomic status. Similarly, research out of New South Wales, Australia found that regardless of smoking prevalence, more tobacco retailers were found in economically disadvantaged areas.
For more information on retailer density in low-income communities check out the following:
Low income Black communities are more likely to have high density of tobacco retailers than other communities. African-American communities have been a very specific target for the tobacco industry for advertisement of menthol cigarettes. Through out the US, areas with a larger proportion of African Americans have significantly higher retailer density, higher numbers of menthol advertisements, higher availability of flavored cigars, more price promotions, and lower prices for Newport cigarettes, little cigars, and cigarillos.[7, 8]
Learn more about the tobacco industry’s targeting of Black communities through advertising:
Read about RJ Reynold’s sponsored meeting in Black Churches here.
A higher density of tobacco retailer outlets also has been found in areas where greater numbers of LGBTQ couples live, and according to CDC MMWR data, 20.6% of LGBTQ individuals smoke compared to 14.9% of heterosexual individuals.  The FDA recently launched "This Free Life" public education campaign to reduce tobacco use in the LGBTQ community and counter the tobacco industry's targeted marketing.
Learn more about the tobacco industry’s targeting of LGBTQ communities through advertising:
The tobacco industry also has a history of targeting people with mental illness. In San Francisco, a study found that tobacco retailer density was twice as high near where smokers with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) lived than near where other members of the general population lived. For individuals with SMI, living near a greater number of tobacco retailers was also associated with having greater nicotine dependence and lower readiness to quit. This density may be a factor in the disparate rates in smoking between individuals with SMI, 36% of whom smoke compared to 21% of individuals without a mental illness.
Learn more about the tobacco industry’s targeting of individuals struggling with mental health communities through advertising:
Increased retailer density not only creates additional access points for individuals to acquire tobacco products but also increases exposure to POS advertising. The tobacco industry strategically customizes their POS marketing to appeal to the particular socio-economic and racial/ethnic backgrounds of those living in these communities where they have a high number of outlets.
African Americans & Menthol Cigarettes
The first concerted minority advertising push took place during the early 1970’s. During this time, major tobacco companies fought for share of the young urban African American market in what has been coined the “Menthol Wars”. Rival companies noticed Kool’s popularity in the African American market niche, and began vying for brand loyalty and profit. What started as a niche market has, over time, become a highly valued target audience segment for tobacco advertising, as discussed in these Phillip Morris documents about their Black Marketing Task Force.
During the Menthol War era, tobacco companies also began taking into account the physical attributes of stores in low-income minority communities in order to design the physical characteristics of their POS promotional campaigns. For example, in 1984, Phillip Morris released a series of window display ads with suction cups on them so that they could be placed behind bulletproof windows and still be seen by consumers. Additionally, displays, originally designed for larger stores, were re-designed and scaled down to fit better in smaller inner-city convenience stores, as part of Phillip Morris's Ethnic Program Development. A 2013 study of Washington D.C. tobacco retailers found that retailers within predominately African-American areas of the city were 2-3 times more likely to display interior and exterior advertisements than stores in areas with lower African-American populations. A systematic review found more menthol marketing in areas with higher numbers of low-income and black residents. A recent study in both rural and urban Ohio found a higher prevalence of ads for cigarillos, cigars, and e-cigarettes in African American communities and found that urban, disadvantaged, African-American communities had advertisements for more types of tobacco products overall. In addition, research has shown Newport (menthol) cigarettes to be cheaper in geographic areas with a higher proportion of African American residents.
Wright, former Trade Marketing Manager and Controlling Manager of Brown and Williamson (tobacco company), discusses the importance of using price discounts in low-income African-American neighborhoods with high menthol sales deemed as, “focus communities.” Wright explains that a higher number of interior and exterior ads showcasing mentholated tobacco products were displayed in retail outlets located in “focus communities.” The use of price discounts and retailer incentive programs were also used to establish Kool’s presence at the point of sale. Kool’s share of market for mentholated products increased in stores where Kool offered a Buy-One-Get-One free promotion. The use of these price cutting strategies coupled with strategic POS brand presence such as flashy colors, motorized displays, plastic countertop mats, and more mentholated product pack facings allowed for Kool to gain ground with African-American consumers.
Low Income Women & Price Discounts
In 1977, RJR first attempted to reach low income female consumers of African American and Latino neighborhoods by pairing 25 cent off Salem Light coupons with food stamp distribution. These coupons targeted packs instead of cartons because RJR noted that lower income consumers tended to buy single packs to avoid purchasing the more highly priced cigarette carton. The economic downturn of the 1980s spurred the importance of discounting at the point of sale to the forefront once again. Leveraging in depth marketing analysis, tobacco companies counteracted female consumers’ guilt of purchasing cigarettes in the midst of economic hardship by offering coupons and discounts at the point of sale. Tobacco companies like Brownson and Williamson leveraged price discounting as a major marketing tactic of retaining low income female consumers. To this day, price discounting is a cornerstone of the tobacco industry’s marketing strategy. The 2013 Federal Trade Commission report shows that 85.4% of the tobacco industry’s multi-billion dollar marketing budget for cigarettes is dedicated to price discounts.  In addition, a 2012 study in Philadelphia found tobacco retailer outlets that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to be more likely to display both exterior and interior tobacco advertisements as well as tobacco advertisements near products targeted to children, leading to greater exposure to tobacco advertising among SNAP and WIC recipients.
To combat disproportionate tobacco advertising in your neighborhood consider:
Surveying the Severity of the Problem: Before pursuing a policy option, make sure to learn more about the disparities in the amount of tobacco advertising in your community.
Use the newly released Standardized Tobacco Assessment Retail Settings (STARS) to document the presence of tobacco industry activity. Each item is correlated to a policy solution, providing advocates with information necessary to pursue policy change.
Well-suited for youth groups or as a preliminary step to surveying the presence of POS advertising in a community, try Counter Tobacco’s Tobacco Retailer Nation Youth and Community Engagement activity. This prepackaged activity will provide you with all of the steps and materials necessary to collect preliminary data regarding the presence of POS advertising in your neighborhood.
Investigating Policy Options: Policies and programs can help eliminate tobacco-related disparities by changing how and where tobacco products are sold to make them less appealing and accessible, and by changing the social norms around tobacco use, making its use seem less acceptable.
San Francisco passed a landmark tobacco retailer licensing law called the Tobacco Sales Reduction Act, which sets a cap on the number of tobacco sales permits allowed in each of the city's 11 districts, aiming to reduce disparities in retailer density in lower income and minority communities. Read more on Licensing and Zoning ordinances.
Finding Partners: Identify the key players that would support a POS policy solution and open dialogue with these groups. A united front, composed of multiple stakeholders will improve the likelihood of your initiative’s success. To cover more ground in surveying the issue, try partnering with a local youth group involved in tobacco control work or social change
Gauging Community Support: Prior to pursuing a policy solution, ensure that there is support in your community for the policy you are trying to push forward. For more information on gathering community attitudes and beliefs about a certain issue, visit our page discussing public opinion surveys
Ensure Equitable Implementation: In order to reduce disparities in tobacco use, tobacco control interventions must also be implemented in an equitable way that ensures the benefits reach all population groups and that resources and services are distributed consistently and equally across populations.