SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — A year after it did away with in-store tobacco advertising in 72 locations, Price Chopper here is reporting that category sales are down.
The chain stopped advertising tobacco products in its New York locations so as to not influence young people to become so-called “replacement smokers.”
Today, double-thick opaque filters obscure logos from brands like Camel and Marlboro on the face of its tobacco centers. All other materials promoting tobacco products have been removed.
“Price Chopper has made a commitment not to entice the next generation of smokers,” spokeswoman Mona Golub told SN. “We felt by muting the visual impact of both the product and its accompanying colorful logos that we would be able to do that.”
Price Chopper's pledge was prompted by the Project Action Tobacco-Free Coalition, Amsterdam, N.Y. Funded by grants from the N.Y. Department of Health its goal is to systematically reduce tobacco use in the state, Director Rebecca Manwaring told SN. Project Action has been working with supermarkets for the past two years.
“Our ultimate goal is to have grocery stores stop selling cigarettes,” Manwaring said.
Price Chopper won't likely follow in the footsteps of chains like Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., which stopped merchandising tobacco products two years ago, according to Golub.
“We took note that another chain was making that stand but we recognize that the product is legal and there are still consumers who choose to purchase it,” she said.
These days, however, fewer Price Chopper consumers are doing so. Golub attributes the drop in sales to a number of factors.
Among them is price. The chain began obscuring tobacco messaging just as the single-largest tobacco tax increase ever was levied on cigarettes. It brought the combined federal and average state excise tax for cigarettes to $2.21 per pack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Proceeds will help fund a measure expected to reduce by half the number of children in the U.S. without health insurance.
But those taxes weren't the only cause for tobacco price adjustments at Price Chopper. In making its decision to do away with promotional materials, the retailer — who also has locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — forfeited promotional allowances once received from its trading partners. The retailer raised the price of its tobacco products as a result, according to Golub. She would not share specifics.
“Tobacco companies were less than pleased with our desire to make a bigger commitment to not enticing a next generation of smokers than to continue promoting their product,” Golub said.
Lower-profile tobacco centers may also contribute to lackluster sales.
Today, Price Chopper cigarettes from behind its service counters and up against the “fourth wall” of the store. Both areas are full service, meaning that they require assistance from an associate.
“The only signage that appears is a generic black and white sign that creates a level playing field for all brands,” said Golub. “It simply offers price information.”
Price Chopper didn't publicize its commitment to the community when the changes were made, but consumers noticed the difference. The retailer briefed store associates and managers so they could appropriately respond to shopper questions about the effort. Consumer feedback was positive.
“Many [smokers] said, ‘We appreciate your recognition that the right to smoke or to quit belongs to us,’” said Golub. “At the same time they expressed their support of our commitment to not entice the next generation of smokers.”
An anti-tobacco youth group also recognized Price Chopper for its efforts. The students collected 1,000 signatures during a local agricultural fair from residents interested in thanking the retailer for its commitment to the community.
“It was really powerful,” Golub said.
Price Chopper did not receive any funding from Project Action. It paid for the tobacco center alterations itself.
Grand Union Family Markets is another grocery chain who pledged its commitment to covering up tobacco displays. The areas from which it merchandises tobacco in its 20 New York locations are different from Price Choppers' in that they don't list pricing information.
“Grand Union has no evidence of cigarettes, so the thought of cigarettes will never enter children's minds,” Manwaring said.
Grand Union did not return SN's request for comment.
Hannaford Supermarkets, Scarborough, Maine, is also teaming up with Project Action.
Though plans haven't been set in stone, the chain has made a verbal commitment to do a prototype of a covered tobacco display before Kick Butts Day on March 24, Manwaring told SN. Kick Butts Day is designed to empowers youth to take action against tobacco use at more than 2,000 events across the country. It was started by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Washington.
Project Action's efforts also extend to convenience stores and pharmacies in New York state.
It's successfully convinced several small independent pharmacies to stop selling tobacco products.
“Many pharmacies decided to go tobacco-free since it didn't line up with their mission of trying to heal people,” Manwaring said.
The retailers' efforts come at a time when the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to further regulate the ways in which tobacco marketers can advertise their products.