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Warnings Have Health Consequences for Tobacco

Warnings Have Health Consequences for Tobacco

A trip to the supermarket could become a lot less appetizing once graphic images depicting the negative consequences of smoking debut on cigarette packs.

In fact, some of the pictures that the Food and Drug Administration is proposing make my stomach turn.

Like the one that compares a set of healthy pink lungs to the blackened lungs of a smoker, or another that shows smoke coming through a hole in a man's trachea as he puffs away — not exactly the poster-boy for the health and wellness movement.

Other possibilities are more innocuous, like the one of a guy proudly sporting a T-shirt that states “I quit.” The FDA is accepting comments through Jan. 9.

Taking up at least half of the front and rear panels of cigarette packs come fall 2012, the images are going to be conspicuous. So as retailers think ahead to 2011, now might be a good time to consider how the new requirements might influence the way they sell smokes.

A recent SN Quick Poll shows that some supermarkets are already considering changes to their tobacco sets.

When asked: “Will bolder warning labels on cigarette packs and advertising change the way you merchandise the category?” 18% said “yes, we want to be viewed as a health and wellness destination”; 62%, “no, we'll continue to sell cigarettes the same way we always have”; and 18%, “maybe, it depends on the specific images and warning statements required by the FDA.”

Two years ago, a handful of grocers kicked the category, citing the integrity of their health and wellness positioning. But outside forces like higher inventory costs, rising excise taxes and a loss of category share likely influenced their decision.

Since then, the largest tax ever has been levied against tobacco. And if the new warnings have the intended effect on smoking rates, additional retailers may reach a similar tipping point. Especially once graphic images on cigarettes become the norm.

Then there are special circumstances that will prevent bold images from reaching shoppers eyes, but not because the category has been abandoned.

As part of a play to shield young consumers from glamorized images of smoking, Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., conceals the tobacco sets in all of its stores with double-thick opaque filters, so as not to entice children to become so-called replacement smokers. It's lost promotional allowances and had to increase cigarette prices as a result. Sales have also suffered since the filters were installed.

I'm curious to see whether Price Chopper removes the filters when packs become less alluring to kids. Maybe exposing them to the negative consequences of smoking will prove more effective than keeping the category a mystery, once the new labels take effect.

If Price Chopper decides to lose the shields, other retailers will likely find use for them. Especially if the objective is keeping bold images under wraps.