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Keywords:

  • Advertising and promotion;
  • point-of-purchase;
  • point-of-sale;
  • power-walls;
  • retail merchandising;
  • tobacco

Tobacco control has historically been approached in a piecemeal manner in several jurisdictions, in which particular mediums of tobacco promotion are prohibited whereas other mediums remain permissible. Such a regulatory environment has facilitated shifts in promotional spending, and tobacco firms have further developed alternative communication channels such as retail merchandising [1,2]. Partial tobacco advertising bans do not generally result in reduced advertising output, but rather in media substitution and reinvestment [3]. Accordingly, tobacco firms now spend most of their promotional dollars via the retail sector in many jurisdictions, including the United States [4]. There is a call for retail display bans around the world: to date, 174 parties have signed and ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which is the world's first public health treaty, and Article 13 calls for a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising and promotion (subject to a party's constitutional principles). In countries where retail display bans have been adopted (e.g. Australia, Canada, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Thailand), tobacco firms are likely to challenge the constitutionality of such stipulations, and building evidence about the influence of retail displays on tobacco purchase and consumption is timely and valuable.

Burton et al. [5] importantly add to the growing evidence regarding the influence of retail displays on tobacco consumption. The setting of their study is the state of New South Wales in Australia, and more than 1000 participants, who were smokers, were asked to complete diary-style surveys in which they recorded the number of cigarettes smoked and purchased, exposure to cigarette smoking by friends/family or other smokers and exposure to tobacco displays over 4-hour intervals for a total of 4 days. Allowing for factors such as exposure to cigarette smoking by friends/family or other smokers, they found that exposure to tobacco point-of-sale displays were associated with a higher likelihood of smoking.

Smokers' self-reports indicate that retail displays are likely to prompt impulse purchases [6,7], which are commonly defined as unplanned buying that is spontaneous and ‘occurs when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buy something immediately’[8]. Although impulse purchases are possible for a wide range of products, they are more commonplace for items such as gum, candy and magazines that, like tobacco products, are often placed conveniently near point-of-sale (POS) or the checkout of retailers [8,9]. Market research from Philip Morris, during the early 1990s, recognized an increasing tendency towards impulse purchases, with most consumer purchasing decisions being made in-store. Philip Morris identified that a key point strategically was to have their brands, including Marlboro, ‘positioned in the store to take maximum advantage of the impulse shopper’[10].

Burton et al. [5] pose an intriguing question about how a consumer's inventory will affect their consumption. One potential type of impulse purchase is forward buying, which refers to unplanned purchases of items for future consumption [11]. POS display materials, for example, might highlight strikingly low prices and prompt customers to acquire a quantity that is beyond their usual purchase. For product categories such as detergent and paper towels, the consumer's plentiful inventory is unlikely to affect their consumption patterns. However, there are other products (which may include tobacco) that the consumer's cautiousness about consumption might depend on the product's scarcity or abundance. Using beer as an example, if an individual has a few cases refrigerated and in supply, he/she may be more likely to have a second beer on a particular evening; yet, with only a few beers remaining and unlikely to acquire more soon, he/she would be less likely to have that second beer. The person's inventory of beer in this scenario might prompt their alcohol consumption to be doubled. Future research that explores the influence of a consumer's inventory on consumption, particularly for products with addictive potential, would be illuminating.

A revealing finding by Burton et al. [5] is that participants reported seeing tobacco displays in more than 40% of the time-periods spent outside their homes. This finding further speaks to the pervasiveness and intensity of tobacco retail merchandising, when permitted, and such environments are likely to enhance brand awareness and image, as well as build ‘friendly familiarity’ and influence the perceived popularity of cigarette brands and tobacco use generally [12,13]. Moreover, this finding by Burton et al. [5] reiterates the high density of retail tobacco outlets commonly observed [14–17]. Considering the devastating health consequences and addictiveness of tobacco use, it is astounding that tobacco products remain so visible and readily available.

Declarations of interest

  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References

TD has served as a paid expert witness in tobacco litigation.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References

The author thanks Wonkyong Beth Lee and Richard W. Pollay for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References