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Exploring retailer abandonment of tobacco sales

Institution: University of California, San Francisco
Investigator(s): Ruth Malone, Ph.D., R.N.
Award Cycle: 2009 (Cycle 18) Grant #: 18XT-0140 Award: $250,000
Subject Area: Public Health, Public Policy, and Economics
Award Type: Exploratory/Developmental Award

Initial Award Abstract
In California, approximately 40,000 stores sell cigarettes. Tobacco outlet density has been shown to increase the likelihood of smoking among both minors and adults. Cigarette displays and promotional materials in stores also serve as environmental cues to smoke and may help promote the idea that the dangers of smoking have been exaggerated. Yet tobacco outlets remain widespread, and are more concentrated in economically and socially deprived neighborhoods than in wealthier neighborhoods. For this reason, limiting the number and placement of tobacco sales outlets has been a goal for many tobacco control advocates. Recently, several California grocery store chains and numerous pharmacies have begun to voluntarily discontinue tobacco sales, even in the absence of a legal requirement to do so. However, virtually nothing is known about the dynamics and context of how these decisions to abandon tobacco sales are made, how they may relate to the social denormalization of tobacco that has long been the focus of the California tobacco control program, and how they are perceived.

This project will explore the origins of, rationales for, and media and consumer response to retailer decisions to abandon tobacco sales. Understanding more about this relatively new phenomenon and its implications is strategically important for tobacco control in California. Voluntary retailer initiatives to discontinue tobacco sales have the potential to reduce smoking uptake and use and to increase public support for other tobacco control policies. Voluntary retailer initiatives to end tobacco sales may also denormalize the tobacco industry. When businesses reject alliances with the tobacco industry, it may be weakened socially, economically, or politically, further denormalizing it. Retailers’ voluntary initiatives may also serve as policy models for more comprehensive policies (such as San Francisco’s recently adopted law banning tobacco sales in most pharmacies) in places where legally binding policies are not yet politically possible.

Using case studies, we will explore voluntary initiatives by retailers to abandon tobacco sales and analyze their implications for tobacco control efforts. The study’s specific aims are to conduct a set of four case studies of California grocery stores and pharmacies that have voluntarily discontinued tobacco sales in order to describe why, where, and how retailers create these policies, and explore public and media responses to them. Case studies will include interviews with business owners and employees; focus groups with smoking and nonsmoking patrons of businesses that have voluntarily discontinued tobacco sales; observations at businesses; and analyses of related media coverage. The knowledge gained from this study will offer guidance to tobacco control advocates about how best to support those businesses that have chosen to end tobacco sales and how to encourage others to follow suit. This study will also provide pilot data that will be essential for designing larger-scale studies of this new phenomenon.