retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times reports this morning that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, fresh off the decision by a judge to strike down his proposed banning of jumbo sugared soft drinks as a way of addressing the city's obesity crisis, now has proposed legislation that would require the city's retailers to keep all cigarette products out of sight.

According to the Times, Bloomberg said "his bill would make New York the first city in the nation to force retailers to keep tobacco products hidden. He said they could be kept, for example, in a cabinet or a drawer, behind the counter or a curtain, but not anywhere where customers could see them.

"The campaign is intended to shield children from tobacco marketing and to keep people who have quit smoking from buying cigarettes on impulse, he said."

The story says that Bloomberg "also proposed a second bill that would raise penalties for retailers who evade tobacco taxes by selling smuggled cigarettes, prohibit them from redeeming coupons and require them to sell cheap cigars and cigarillos in packs of at least four. It would also create a minimum price of $10.50 per pack for cigarettes and little cigars, as a further disincentive to smoke.

"The bills would not stop stores from advertising that they have cigarettes for sale, or from displaying prices; they would not raise taxes; and they would not apply to tobacco stores, which cannot admit minors without their parents."

The mayor seems to have learned something from the soft drink controversy. In banning jumbo sugared soft drink sales, Bloomberg avoided sending the bill to the City Council and instead had his Board of Health pass the regulations, a move that the judge in the case said was inappropriate. The new tobacco rules will go to the City Council for consideration.

However, Bloomberg's desire to focus on public health issues remains intact.

The Times writes that "the Bloomberg administration has banned smoking in almost all public spaces, including parks, plazas and beaches, as well as restaurants and bars. But the current proposal comes after some legal defeats for antismoking measures.

"In 2010, a federal judge struck down a New York City law that would have forced tobacco retailers to post gruesome images of health damage caused by smoking, finding that only the federal government had the authority to regulate cigarette warnings and advertisements.

"A federal regulation requiring similar graphic warnings on cigarette packages and advertising was struck down by a federal appeals court for the District of Columbia last year, on the ground that it violated corporate free speech rights. The court majority found a lack of evidence that graphic warnings had reduced smoking in countries like Canada that had them. Many experts expect the issue to go to the Supreme Court."
KC's View:
As often mentioned here, I have almost no objectivity on the issue of tobacco - my mom died at age 68, just about 15 years ago, of lung cancer that was related to her four decade, two-pack-a-day habit. I've said it before and I'll say it again - there is a special corner of hell reserved for the people who made tobacco products, engineered them to addict people, and then lied about it.

But let's put that aside for the moment.

I honestly don't know whether this new regulation will prevent people from smoking. Not sure if it will stop people from starting this habit, or get people to stop. And I don't know where this all stops. If potato chips or soft drinks are determined to contribute to obesity, does that mean that eventually they may be hidden from view?

I do think, however, that the impulse behind this proposal is the right one. Smoking creates enormous health problems in this country, and those health problems contribute to the high costs of health care that people pay, which hurts the economy. And anything we can do to drive down the number of people who smoke is probably a net positive.