UAlbany Study: Local Regulation Helps Reduce Tobacco Availability

Jul 14, 2016

A new University at Albany-led study finds that while local regulation helps reduce tobacco availability, there is increased concern about the rise of electronic cigarettes.

The long-term study tracked 12-year trends in tobacco availability, advertising, and ownership changes in various food stores.

The setting of the study: six zip codes in downtown Albany, an area the university’s research center since 2002 has identified as a "priority community" due to the elevated chronic disease risks of its residents, including high prevalence of smoking.   "This is a type of study that you actually go to the community, visit every single store, so it's not like I’m doing data analysis from data someone else collected. So I have a lot of interaction with store owners and the people in the community through observations."  Study author Akiko Hosler is an associate professor of epidemiology at the University at Albany. She counts convenience stores, supermarkets, and drug stores as the places where people of all ages are exposed to tobacco products and pro-tobacco messages.    "Having stores with a lot of tobacco advertisement is actually a risk factor for people living in the community because they are exposed to those pro-tobacco subliminary almost like a message, and so particularly for younger children and teenagers, they are most likely to be influenced by those pro-tobacco advertisements."

Other studies have shown that unregulated point-of-sale tobacco advertising in the form of in-store posters and other advertising displayed at children's eye-level encourages youths to experiment with smoking. Kids who are picking up items for their parents, siblings or selves at a retail outlet close to home are exposed to daily doses of pro-tobacco advertising, said to trigger "stronger urges to smoke."  Hosler notes "My study confirmed that minority neighborhoods have a higher percentage of stores selling tobacco and also more advertisement of tobacco."

In New York, the average age of a new smoker is 13, and 90 percent of adult smokers say they first tried smoking by age 18. In May, the Albany County legislature passed legislation raising the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21.  County Executive Dan McCoy in June approved the law, which also restricts purchases of liquid nicotine, e-cigarettes, rolling papers and pipes.   "We've gotten some great feedback, people have called, applauded us, there's a sign in Stewart's says you have to be 21 now, someone took a picture and sent it to our office. The only negative feedback we're gettin' and we knew this goin' into this law, is from some of the owners, gettin' the word out there that we did raise the age to 21, so we're still doin' an education with a lot of the convenience stores around Albany County, There's a lot of stores, it's not just the city of Albany. We have a lot of stores up in the hilltowns that don't really get the message as quickly as anyone else, so we've been sending letters out to the department of health, we've been calling 'em, so we're trying to educate them along with the public."

Despite anti-tobacco legislation enacted during the study period***, including the New York State Clean Indoor Air Act in 2003 along with raising taxes and fees, tobacco remained widely available in the study community. Hosler says more than two-thirds of the small independently owned stores surveyed experienced high ownership turnover. She suggests a moratorium on the state taxation department renewing or issuing tobacco licenses.   "So my calculation is that in order for Albany, the downtown area of Albany, to have a moderate percentage of stores selling tobacco, it will take about three to four years after we impose the moratorium."

An official at taxation and finance had no comment. The poverty rate in the study area is 34 percent and approximately 42 percent of the area residents are African American. Data was collected from June through August in 2003, 2009, 2012, and 2015.

*** During the study period, New York State enacted legislation aimed at reducing tobacco users, including expanding the comprehensive New York State Clean Indoor Air Act in 2003, substantial increases in the state tobacco excise tax in 2008 (from $1.50 to $2.75 per pack) and again in 2010 (to $4.38 per pack), and several amendments of the Youth Access Tobacco Control Law.

In 2011, the annual tobacco retailer registration fee was also raised from $100 to $300. Despite this anti-tobacco legislation, tobacco remained widely available in this study community. Estimated per 10,000 population, tobacco retailer densities were 16.4 in 2003, 18.2 in 2009, 19.7 in 2012, and 18.7 in 2015.