Queens Chronicle:Tobacco ads seen through kids' eyes

(October 20, 2011)

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by Kasey Schefflin-Emrich, Chronicle Contributor | Posted: Thursday, October 20, 2011 

According to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 5,000 high school students living in Queens smoke cigarettes, one-third of whom will die prematurely as a direct result. The “Talk a Walk in Our Shoes” tour held on Monday attempted to tackle a significant cause of the problem: advertising in stores.

Area youths joined the American Lung Association, the Queens Smoke-Free Partnership and the NYC Coalition For A Smoke-Free City to lead elected officials and the media on a tour to get an inside look at the tobacco advertising they encounter each day while walking the streets of their community.

The group met at Long Island City High School and discovered that in the span of five blocks from the school, approximately 15 tobacco ads and seven tobacco retailers were prominently displayed on the exterior windows and doors of convenience stores.

“It doesn’t help that youths have to pass these stores at least twice a day, to and from school,” said Lisa Spitzner, project coordinator at the American Lung Association in New York. “In addition to ads on the exterior walls, there are more within the store.

“When youths are exposed to extensive tobacco advertising and product displays every time they enter a store that sells cigarettes, it distorts their perceptions regarding the availability of cigarettes and increases the likelihood that they will smart smoking.”

According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the tobacco industry spends over a half a billion dollars annually in New York State to market their products, including paying retailers to display ads in the most visible locations in stores, and recruit youths to become “replacement smokers” to make up for those smokers who either quit or died.

Once young people are hooked, they are likely to become lifelong customers. Studies show that 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking before age 18.

Health organizations and advocacy groups want to end this trend.

“Through skillfully placed advertising, Big Tobacco has made it clear that they want our kids to buy their products, use their products and become lifelong customers, even if that cuts our kids’ lives short,” said Sheelah Feinberg, director of NYC Coalition For A Smoke-Free City. “When tobacco is used as directed, it is likely to kill the user. We will not accept this deliberate business practice to tempt our kids to light up and risk their lives.”

Advocates believe that to combat the tobacco industry, the first step is raising awareness, which was the tour’s main goal.

“We want people to be alert and aware that this advertising is happening,” said Yvette Jackson, borough manager of Queens Smoke-Free Partnership. “By educating our communities, youth, and elected officials, we will hopefully bring down the demand for tobacco products.”