The High Cost of Convenience: Why So Many Tobacco Ads Are in Gas Stations

If you’ve ever filled up your gas tank or grabbed a snack from a convenience store, you’ve probably noticed dozens, if not hundreds, of tobacco advertisements crowding the doors, the counters and the walls. It’s hard to use the restroom or buy a water bottle without seeing a promotion for tobacco products.

The truth: Tobacco companies are actively incentivizing gas stations to advertise their products, pouring billions of dollars into marketing tactics in convenience stores every year and developing self-profiting contracts with store owners. It may seem like harmless marketing, but the cost is so much more.

“Contracts between tobacco manufacturers and retailers may not be well known, but the tobacco industry has ensured that their deadly products are given prime placement at stores because ‘eye level is buy level.’”

  • Kurt Ribisl, PhD, Department of Health Behavior Chair and Jo Anne Earp Distinguished Professor at Gillings School of Global Public Health

Tobacco Retail Manipulation

As regulations for television, radio and movies continue to crack down on the marketing of tobacco products, gas stations continually update their displays year after year.

Big Tobacco offers retailers hefty incentives to promote their products at the point of sale. However, these promotions must follow strict guidelines that are listed out in contracts with tobacco companies. Most commonly, they require retailers to place advertisements in certain areas of the store. For example, a poster must be within eight feet of the entrance, and the counter cling should be within so many inches of the register. Many stores must also meet a sales volume and a sales frequency for particular brands, further encouraging retailers and shop owners to push certain products at certain times.

The Fine Print

Why do owners even comply? While retailers are often given handsome incentives for hitting sales goals and correctly promoting products — everything from bonuses to cruises to luxury cars — it comes at a cost: relinquished control. Failure to comply leads to a loss of incentives, which is something many retailers can’t afford. This results in a lot of pushback from retailers when new public health initiatives are launched.

“Tobacco industry contracts with retailers undermine tobacco control efforts by ensuring tobacco products are given prime placement to all customers, young and old, and by keeping cigarettes discounted.”

  • Allie Reimold, MA, doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior at Gillings School of Global Public Health

Through these contracts, tobacco retailers have control over prices, which oftentimes undermine local laws by offsetting nearby high-tax jurisdictions. Contracts have also targeted specific genders, socioeconomic classes and races with certain promotions. Most notably, a contract from R.J. Reynolds targeted predominantly Black neighborhoods with promotions for menthol cigarettes.

Some guidelines even require retailers to speak verbally about promotions to patrons over a certain age. Representatives from the tobacco company monitor breaches of contract by visiting retailers — either unannounced or by using hired mystery shoppers — to directly manage salesclerks in person.

In a study conducted by the University of North Carolina, researchers suggested that lawmakers move to ban the retail contracts entirely. This is because the outright ban of in-store promotions and incentive programs is the only surefire way to prevent the tobacco industry from creating more loophole-ridden contracts. It’s time to loosen the chains that Big Tobacco has placed on our locally owned convenience stores.

Point-of-Sale Corrective Statements

These harmful ads have not gone unnoticed. Starting October 1, 2023, nearly 200,000 tobacco retailers across the country must install signs in their stores with corrective statements from the tobacco industry. This is the long-awaited result of an unprecedented landmark ruling from the Department of Justice, which found major tobacco companies guilty of racketeering for deliberately misleading the public about the health risks of smoking and secondhand smoke and the addictive nature of their products. These corrective statements will remain posted until June 30, 2025.

Published by Tobacco Stops With Me on April 21, 2023