We have work to do to protect kids at the point of sale

In all likelihood, kids today don’t see nearly as many cigarettes as their grandparents did. Gone are popular actors waving smoke in Hollywood scenes, and Seventeen magazine doesn’t show tobacco next to the season’s fashion trends anymore.

But there’s still one place kids might see that Marlboro man, and one reason they know America still smokes: in the convenience shops, grocery stores, and gas stations surrounding their schools and playgrounds, tobacco advertising still abounds. 

The tobacco messages that kids see when purchasing after-school snacks are some of the few remaining, as health and public policy advocates have largely waged a war on the public advertisements in movies and magazines that used to be so common in America. Point-of-sale advertising has become one of the final frontiers for a tobacco industry looking to market its products to impressionable and price-sensitive youth.

 At least 44% of teens in the US attend school within 1000ft of a tobacco retailer, [11] and 77% of public schools are within a 10-minute walk of a tobacco retailer.[13] This is important because when there are more stores near schools, youth smoking rates are higher.[1, 12, 14, 15 ] A 2019 systematic review of both US-based and international studies found a positive association between higher density of stores near schools and youth susceptibility to future smoking.[12] One study found that schools with more stores within walking distance have higher smoking prevalences than schools with fewer retailers nearby.[1]  And in the US, low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with more people of color also have more tobacco retailers near schools. [13, 14 ]

Documents obtained from tobacco companies show evidence that corporate marketers have targeted convenience stores, grocery stores, and other tobacco vendors near schools and playgrounds in an effort to attract young smokers. As you are working on developing policies to help reduce youth exposure to tobacco marketing, you may find it helpful to expose tobacco industry efforts to target youth at stores.

Companies Changing Tactics to Target Youth

POS Kids

While tobacco companies used to create advertising campaigns directly for children, using whimsical packaging and cartoon characters, such direct messaging was eventually ruled illegal. In the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement agreement, the companies agreed not to “take any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth within any state in the advertising, promotion or marketing of tobacco products.”

As a condition of the 1998 settlement, tobacco companies were required to make internal documents and memos public through a national database. The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library contains more than 13 million documents reaching back as far as the early 1900’s. Scholars and health professionals have analyzed these documents, finding evidence of tobacco executives specifically targeting youths.

“I have attached information on younger adult purchase patterns and target outlets for DB,” wrote one RJ Reynolds tobacco executive to another in 1984, about Project DB, a marketing effort targeting younger purchasers. The objective of a new marketing scheme would be “To offensively take share from Marlboro by capitalizing on the price sensitivity of younger adult smokers,” wrote another 1984 executive:

stores near schools


While the executives would argue that their discussion of “younger adults” was referring to those older than 18, there were instances where a broader interpretation was implied.

“The base of our business is the high school student,” wrote a tobacco executive regarding Newport cigarettes in 1978. An RJ Reynolds executive sent a memo in 1990 asking area sales representatives to identify areas near high schools or college campuses where tobacco sales were profitable and traffic was highest:

stores near schools2

In 1990 RJ Reynolds came under criticism after the Wall Street Journal published a story about a supervisor who attempted to market cigarettes specifically to schoolchildren. In the memo obtained by the Journal, the supervisor, James McMahon, instructed a regional sales manager, Terrance Sullivan, to implement the program in stores:

stores near schools3

Sullivan refused to sign off on the program, and later sued RJ Reynolds when he was fired for doing so.

The examples of executives targeting youths are numerous. In a 1998 RJ Reynolds memo titled, “The Importance of Younger Adults,” an executive outlined the need to retain young smokers. “Younger adults are the only source of replacement smokers,” he wrote. Today’s younger adult smoking behavior will largely determine the trend of Industry volume over the next several decades . If younger adults turn away from smoking, the Industry must decline, just as a population which does not give birth will eventually dwindle.” 

Stores near schools in some areas may be more likely to sell to minors or to display more tobacco advertising than others. A study conducted in Washington D.C. found that illicit sales to minors were higher in tobacco retailers located closer to high schools in predominantly African–American neighborhoods. [2] The researchers also found that the closer retailers were located to a public high school, the more likely they were to display exterior tobacco advertising.[2

Another study conducted with secondary school students in New Zealand showed that students were more likely to be smokers when their school was located in an area with a high density of tobacco retail outlets.[3] In addition, at schools located in areas of high tobacco retailer density, students who were current smokers were more likely to make purchase attempts and students who were non-smokers were more likely to be susceptible to smoking.[3

Tobacco companies know that youth use of tobacco is price-sensitive and that raising tobacco prices reduces youth smoking. A survey of D.C. tobacco retailers found that the lowest cigarette pack price per retailer was significantly lower in stores located near public schools than stores located near private schools.[4]  A study of New York State retailers found that retailers located in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of youth residents were more likely to offer price promotion on menthol cigarettes, which have been linked to youth tobacco use initiation, than retailers located in neighborhoods with a lower proportion of youth residents. [5, 6]

The Philadelphia Department of Health and Smoke Free Philly created a multi-media exploration of retail tobacco on a neighborhood level. One section titled “On the Way to School I Saw…” shows that (prior to Philadelphia’s 2016 retailer regulations limiting retailer density and prohibiting new stores near schools) a child passes 16 tobacco retailers on his 15 minute walk to school:

Banning Tobacco Sales Near Schools

Localities have been successful in implementing policies that restrict how close to schools tobacco retailers can be located, which can be done through licensing or implemented as a stand-alone policy. For example, in 2009, the city of New Orleans successfully limited the sale of tobacco within a 300 foot radius of schools, corresponding with its similar ban on the sale of alcohol. In 2010, Santa Clara County in California passed an ordinance  banning tobacco retailers from opening any new stores within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of another retailer, in an attempt to reduce marketing near schoolchildren and overall density of advertising in the area. As a result, Santa Clara County saw reduction in density, proximity to schools, and number of tobacco retailers. Nearly one third of tobacco retailers in the unincorporated areas of the county, mostly non-traditional tobacco outlets, decided to end their tobacco sales as a result.[7

In 2016, Philadelphia implemented retailer regulations that included a ban on any new retailers located within 500ft of schools as well as an overall limit of 1 retailer per 1,000 people in each of the city’s districts. Three years after the policy went into effect, the rate of retailers within 500ft of schools declined by 12%, and socioeconomic disparities in density were also significantly reduced.[8

Prohibiting stores near schools not only can reduce youth exposure and youth access to tobacco, but it can also reduce overall tobacco retailer density and disparities in tobacco retailer density. A study comparing strategies to reduce tobacco retailer density in North Carolina found that a ban on tobacco sales within 1,000 feet of schools would impact 18% of tobacco retailer locations across the state and reduce retailer density by 17.7%-28.1% across the three counties.[9] In addition, banning tobacco sales within 1,000 feet of schools could reduce disparities in tobacco retailer density as well. Density is often higher in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Building on the 2011 study of effects of banning advertising near schools in New York and Missouri,[6] researchers examined what would happen if tobacco sales were prohibited within 1000 feet of schools instead.[10] They found that it would not only reduce density across the board, but would nearly eliminate existing race- and income-based disparities in tobacco retailer density between neighborhoods.[10]  

In 2013, Chicago became the first place to pass an ordinance banning the sale of all flavored products, including menthol, within 500 feet of schools, and in 2015, Berkeley, CA passed a similar policy. These policies helped lay the groundwork for more comprehensive policies that prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco.

Banning Point-of-Sale Advertising Near Schools

The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act is a federal law that enables the FDA to regulate tobacco companies by restricting the sale, distribution, accessibility, advertising, and promotion of tobacco products, as consistent with the companies’ First Amendment rights.

Tobacco companies have argued that banning advertising near schools would effectively amount to a blanket ban on all advertising, and an attempt by the state of Massachusetts to implement a 1,000 foot ban was struck down by this reasoning. Additionally, a study conducted by researchers in March 2011 analyzed the impact of a ban on outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools in New York City and St. Louis, and found that such a restriction would affect only 51% and 22% of retailers, respectively, and that a 350 foot ban on advertising near schools would have a nearly nonexistent affect in some parts of the country.[6] While tobacco companies cited the percentage of land that would be off-limits under a 1,000 foot ban, the researchers found that the percentage of retailers affected would be much less.[6]  This map of the two cities shows the spatial analysis conducted to determine areas covered by the two different bans, and the affect it would have on retailers.

While restricting the time, place, and manner of tobacco advertising is legal under federal law, the restrictions still need to be very narrowly tailored to avoid legal challenges related to the commercial speech clause of the First Amendment and the commerce clause. The following resources, developed by the Public Health Law Center and the Center for Public Health & Tobacco Policy, can help you understand how a proposed policy may be viewed by the courts, but it is also advisable to consult legal experts before pursuing any type of policy, especially ones with a higher level of risk for legal challenges.

For a safer solution, consider restricting ALL advertising without regard to its content (“content neutral” advertising restriction). This would affect advertising for all products (e.g. alcohol, food, toys, etc.), not just tobacco. For example, some municipalities limit the percentage of window space that can be taken up by advertisements of any kind or place a limit the size of advertisements allowed. Or consider prohibiting all sales of tobacco near schools, as detailed above.


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