Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 8 - January 2012
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Reforming the retail landscape

Reducing the availability of tobacco

By Joe Strizzi

In Canada, cigarettes can be found at any convenience store or gas station just a hop, skip and a jump away from your work, your child’s school or your residence. Tobacco products are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in most communities.

While significant progress has been made in the way tobacco products are marketed and sold at retail outlets, including the banning of sales to minors and the prohibition of display promotion, many Canadian and global tobacco control communities believe that a significant restructuring of the retail environment is needed to further reduce tobacco use.

According to a policy analysis report produced by Melodie Tilson of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) entitled Reducing the Availability of Tobacco Products at Retail, there are many arguments in support of reducing the availability of tobacco products at retail.

The first is that greater availability increases consumption. The law of supply and demand dictates that the widespread availability of tobacco products will increase use, while competition will drive down prices. Easy access reduces the total cost of use (price plus other factors like transportation costs and time).

Impulse buys are also a problem when these products are so readily available, especially with experimental or occasional smokers and smokers trying to quit. For former smokers, they see temptation at every turn because these products are sold in outlets where they have to shop for the necessities of daily life.

The second is that the omnipresence of tobacco retailers normalizes tobacco products and tobacco use.  Placing cigarettes and tobacco products in stores alongside consumer goods such as candy, gum and newspapers makes this harmful product commonplace by association, leading youth to believe that ‘everyone’ smokes.

The third is that the widespread availability of tobacco products undermines health warnings.  There is a significant gap between all the warnings and risk messaging from health groups and government and the contextual cues at the point of sale that suggest that tobacco is relatively benign.

And finally, fewer outlets would enhance enforcement efforts. According to a study by Jason et al. entitled Reducing illegal cigarettes sales to minors, published in the Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, it’s self-evident that with fewer numbers of outlets selling tobacco products, the easier it is for authorities to monitor compliance with laws restricting promotion and sales of these products. The more outlets there are, the thinner those resources are spread.

Number of tobacco retailers in perspective

Tilson, in her report presented at the 7th National Conference on Tobacco or Health, identifies 14,500 tobacco vendors in Ontario and a total of 18,420 licensed establishments and off-premises outlets selling alcohol. According to her calculations, there was one tobacco vendor for every 114 smokers in the province, compared to one liquor outlet for every 460 alcohol consumers. “In other words, with four times more vendors to tobacco per consumer than alcohol, tobacco products were much more accessible, and yet tobacco use causes four times more deaths, 75% more hospital days and 30% more direct health care costs every year in Canada.”

Decreasing retail density: policy options

The NSRA’s director of policy explores three policy options to reduce retail availability of tobacco products in her report.

She claims that mandating provincial and territorial and/or municipal retailer licensing provisions would reduce the availability of tobacco products by requiring various restrictions and conditions to gradually reduce the number and/or density of retailers.

In Canada, 11 provinces and territories require some form of retailer licence, but only New Brunswick and Nova Scotia impose a fee, “and only in the case of Nova Scotia are the terms meaningful.” Some municipalities have enacted licensing regulations in Ontario and Alberta, where the community of St. Albert imposes the highest licensing fees in the country at $550 per year. And in most cases, it is fairly easy to apply for a tobacco licence.

Compare that to alcohol licensing… In Ontario, anyone wanting to sell alcohol has to apply to an official body for a liquor sales licence. The application includes a detailed, six-page form with supporting documents and a fee of $1,055 for a new licence valid for only two years, taking up to eight weeks to process.

Tilson’s report identifies various means by which licensing would decrease the number and density of tobacco vendors in particular neighbourhoods and zones: by attrition; by not permitting any new licences or capping the number of licences in new developments; by not renewing the licences of retailers who contravene tobacco laws; by not granting licences or by banning sales of a particular class of trade that have higher than normal contraventions in the field; by holding a lottery for the limited number of available licenses; and by auctioning off the limited number of available licenses to the highest bidders.

Zoning would be another option. By setting limits on the number of retailers per zone; by permitting new retailers only in zones with specific classifications, such as light industrial; and/or by not permitting any tobacco retailers within a certain distance of middle and high schools.

Using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping tools, the city of Hamilton determined that there is a much higher concentration of tobacco retailers in neighbourhoods with low socio-economic status and that there is a high concentration of tobacco retailers operating close to schools. In fact, only two schools in the entire city have no retailer within a kilometre of the property. Zoning regulations would help prevent this imbalance as well.

The last option would be to create designated tobacco outlets, similar to the model used in Ontario for the sale of alcohol. Controlled outlets would: deprive tobacco manufacturers of control over an important marketing component; as proprietor, government would have a vested interest in ensuring tobacco use is not promoted and would eliminate the lobbying efforts of the over 30,000 outlets that undermine tobacco control efforts; they could serve as resource centres for cessation; decrease availability by reducing the number of outlets; and lower consumption as accessibility increases the cost in terms of time, effort and money.


“Given the magnitude of the burden imposed on individuals, families and society by tobacco products, the question is not whether the retail sale of tobacco can be regulated to reduce accessibility, but rather why has it not already been done,” wrote Tilson.

Therefore, she outlines eight recommendations to yield the best results. All provinces should broaden the categories of outlets forbidden to sell tobacco products, including outdoor recreational facilities; maintain an accurate database of retailers to be shared with all levels of government and enforcement agencies; require licensing of wholesalers and retailers; minimum licensing requirements reflecting the addictive and lethal nature of the product and to prevent children from experimentation and use; cap the number of tobacco retailer licences aimed to reduce the number over a period of five years; local governments should retain the right to enact even more stringent regulations, developing a plan for the local situation; short-term, the ministries of health and local and provincial health groups need to work with municipalities to pilot test a restructuring of the tobacco sales environment; and finally, money needs to be provided for an in-depth analysis of the consequences of limiting sales to designated outlets.

Quebec is leading the way

Ontario has some 18,000 legal tobacco vendors compared to just 7,500 in Quebec. In some respects, Quebec is spearheading policy on this front through simple registration and regulatory measures based on concomitant use, as was the case for pharmacies. According to statistics released by the Quebec Ministry of Health, the number of points of sales went down from 19,500 in 2003 to 7,500 in 2008, following the ban of tobacco in restaurants and bars, including vending machines, the ban of mobile points of sale, counting canteen trucks and grandfathering tobacconists, as well as cigar-lounges and shisha cafés.