Tobacco signs still target city’s poorer areas

Cigarettes are advertised a Dorchester Avenue convenience store. Cigarettes are advertised a Dorchester Avenue convenience store. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / August 30, 2010

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The signs, wrought in soothing italics, beckon with promises of tobacco “pleasure!’’ at low, low prices. Across Dorchester, Mattapan, and other city neighborhoods, big signs and little signs, vertical signs and horizontal signs trumpet the availability of cigarettes at corner stores and gas stations. They are plastered on façades and propped against windows, affixed to light poles and gas pumps.

A dozen years after Massachusetts attempted to ban storefront tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, a prohibition thwarted by a tobacco company’s legal challenge, the signs remain prolific and prominent in Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods, especially those with substantial African-American and Hispanic populations.

But now, empowered by Congress to regulate tobacco companies, the Food and Drug Administration is taking steps that could rein in the pastel-hued signs that industry foes say entice young customers to start smoking.

With cigarette advertising banished from the airwaves and largely absent from billboards, storefronts are some of the last bastions of tobacco marketing. The continued presence of the ads is a testament, researchers said, to the deep reach of cigarette makers in poorer communities, where merchants said company representatives sometimes personally attach ads to store exteriors.

“Tobacco advertising is still alive and well,’’ said Dr. Michael Siegel, a tobacco control specialist at the Boston University School of Public Health. “There’s a widespread perception that somehow the tobacco advertising has gone away, that it’s been taken care of, that we don’t have to worry about this anymore. But that’s not true.’’

On Gallivan Boulevard, there is the Hess gas station, with signs for Newport, Marlboro, and Pall Mall on light posts and more ads in the window of the convenience store and on the pumps, at least 20 in all. On Dorchester Avenue, there is the red-brick Ashmont Convenience Store, where two Newport signs and one for Maverick cigarettes (“Everyday low price, $6.70’’) dominate posters touting telephone calling cards.

Hung Tran, who was behind the cash register at the Ashmont shop, said that in a neighborhood where tough times have exacted a steep toll, the signs let potential patrons know what wares he has inside.

“It’s good for customers to see it,’’ said Tran, whose brother owns the shop.

The signs, Tran said, are provided by the maker of Newport and Maverick, Lorillard Tobacco Co., which has a contract with the store. “Every three months,’’ Tran said, “they tell me what to do.’’

Lorillard’s director of investor relations, Robert Bannon, declined to discuss the company’s marketing practices. Another major cigarette producer, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., did not return phone messages.

A representative of the nation’s leading tobacco maker, Philip Morris USA, defended storefront ads, citing free speech rights under the First Amendment.

“Adult consumers have a constitutionally protected interest in receiving communications from retailers and manufacturers, just as we, Philip Morris USA, have the right as a manufacturer to communicate nonmisleading information to those consumers about our products,’’ company spokesman David Sutton said.

That position echoes a legal challenge tobacco companies are making to a New York City campaign that mandates graphic warnings at cash registers about the health perils of smoking. Massachusetts regulators proposed a similar initiative earlier this year, but put it on hold, awaiting the outcome of the New York case.

At Sandy’s Variety Store, hard by Washington and Dakota streets, tobacco marketers posted new signs a few weeks back, said Arelis Villa, who has owned the shop for nearly 14 years with her husband. Three signs stand out on the red façade: one for Newport, one for Maverick American Quality, one for USA Gold.

“It doesn’t make sense,’’ Villa said, her head slowly shaking in dismay. “The government says it doesn’t want minors to smoke, that it’s dangerous. So I don’t understand why they let the companies do a lot of advertising to convince people to smoke.’’

Researchers found in 2003 and 2004 that roughly 4 of every 10 dollars spent on tobacco marketing went to store signs, payments to retailers for prime shelf space, and displays inside shops. In some cases, shopkeepers received thousands of dollars through tobacco manufacturer incentive programs.

And the more tobacco promotions children encounter, the greater the risk they will start smoking, Massachusetts scientists reported in 2006.

It is no secret that ad dollars are disproportionately spent in poorer neighborhoods, said researchers, pointing to studies from the past 15 years. In the most recent, Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that stores selling cigarettes in Dorchester were significantly more likely to have signs — and bigger signs — than retailers in Brookline. The researchers, who canvassed storefronts from November 2007 to February 2008, also discovered that stores in Dorchester were more likely to advertise prices and that the prices were lower than in Brookline.

In the Dorchester ZIP code covered by the study, 02124, the median family income was $38,203; 18 percent of Dorchester adults smoke regularly. In Brookline, where the median income was $92,993, the smoking rate was only 6.5 percent.

“Does this marketing demonstrate a targeting of disadvantaged communities? Clearly,’’ said Greg Connolly, an author of the Harvard study that appears in the American Journal of Health Promotion. “Is there a moral and economic obligation to intervene? Yes. We’re not showing dignity and respect for low-income people in Boston.’’

Both Boston and Brookline have rules prohibiting more than 30 percent of a window from being covered by any kind of signs. Brookline goes further, with a design guideline limiting brand-specific advertising. But a planning official said that rule is rarely enforced.

Brookline was the first Massachusetts municipality to impose a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Health director Alan Balsam said the absence of tobacco ads is more a reflection of his town’s attitude toward smoking than a recognition of obscure zoning rules.

“It just shows sometimes you don’t have to hit people with a hammer,’’ Balsam said. “It’s a long slog to educate people who own businesses about tobacco control, but I think we’ve done a fairly good job.’’

In 1996, the FDA first asserted regulatory jurisdiction over tobacco companies, including advertising, but a court ruled that the federal agency was overstepping its authority.

Two years later, Massachusetts attempted to restrict storefront ads. Tobacco maker Lorillard sued, and the US Supreme Court sided with the company.

Last year, the FDA won the power to regulate tobacco companies under a landmark law passed by Congress. The agency, after soliciting public comments, is weighing what to do about ads on the exterior walls and grounds of retailers, a spokeswoman said.

Matthew Myers, president of the advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he believes “there is no question the FDA will clamp down’’ on the signs. But, he said, it is less clear how.

Advertising could be banned within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, as the FDA and Massachusetts proposed in the 1990s. Or the agency could shrink that to a smaller radius so that fewer retailers are affected. Or, rather than an outright prohibition, it could dictate that all tobacco ads be fashioned in a muted design, such as black and white type. The rules, Myers said, would not apply to signs in store windows.

“The question purely is what rules should be in place to govern outdoor advertising that both protect the public health and are consistent with the First Amendment,’’ Myers said.

Stephen Smith can be reached at

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