Local Tobacco Ordinances

What retailers need to know and do.

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Tobacco Ordinances

Over the past several years, anti-tobacco advocates have focused more of their attention and resources on proposing and lobbying for the adoption of local retail tobacco restrictions. The result is an ever-increasing number of ordinances that result in law-abiding retailers being forced to remove legal tobacco products from store shelves.
This shift in the emphasis to local issues is evident in the sheer number of local proposed ordinances per year. In 2011, 248 local tobacco ordinances were introduced and considered by city and county local governments. That number has increased exponentially to more than 700 local tobacco-related ordinances introduced during 2016.

Clearly, the agenda underlying many of these proposed ordinances is one of prohibition. This agenda can be seen in the kind of restrictions being proposed, such as flavor bans. It is important to note that these prohibition-type ordinances are aimed at adult tobacco use, not necessarily to prevent underage tobacco use.

For a number of years, the anti-tobacco groups have claimed that their efforts were to protect youth. However, that claim is now being used to support their efforts to ban the right of adults to buy tobacco products. This is where retailers and their adult customers need to become engaged to oppose these kinds of restrictions.

Local is All About Local: The importance of local retailers participating in an effort to oppose a tobacco ordinance is critical because local elected officials need to hear from their local businesses. Local retailers have their livelihoods at stake as well as their employees’ jobs, and local elected officials have a duty to listen to the businesses located in their city or council. This is why retailers need to explain their concerns to their local representatives.

NATO Local Project: In 2012, NATO started the NATO Local Project, which monitors and helps retailers respond to local tobacco ordinances. If a retailer learns of a proposed retail ordinance, they should call NATO at its toll-free number of 866-869-8888. More than likely, NATO’s monitoring services would have alerted the association about the ordinance, but that may not always be the case. NATO Local Project staff will send an alert to the association’s retail members in that city or county which provides information on the ordinance, includes retail talking points, and the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of local officials. Retailers should then contact local lawmakers to express their concerns about how the ordinance will affect their retail business.

Social Sources: One of the key arguments that NATO provides in response to a tobacco ordinance is information about social sources. A significant majority of underage youth relies on social sources such as family members, older friends and even strangers to obtain tobacco products. This is the issue that anti-tobacco advocates are fully aware of, but choose to ignore because it is so much easier to lobby for more restrictive local retail regulations than it is to change the behavior of adults so that they do not supply youth with tobacco products.

Even the FDA has now confirmed through a study sponsored by the agency that social sources are a significant source of tobacco for youth. The initial findings of this Population Assessment on Tobacco and Health study indicate that minors rely on social sources 81 percent of the time to obtain cigarettes, 79 percent of the time to get cigars or little cigars and almost 77 percent of the time to gain access to smokeless tobacco.

Customer Involvement: It is just as important for retailers to urge their adult customers to call and e-mail local lawmakers, because their rights will also be affected, especially if the ordinance proposes a ban on the sale of certain tobacco products. Finally, retailers need to attend the public hearing held on the ordinance and testify against the proposed restrictions.

Opposing local ordinances is all about local retailers contacting local officials and letting them know that they are responsible business owners, they share the concern about underage youth having access to tobacco products, but that the ordinance will only serve to negatively impact law-abiding retailers’ businesses.

Moreover, it is imperative that retailers not wait until an ordinance has been proposed to contact their city council or county board members. Retailers should contact their local officials, invite them to visit their stores and, when they do, explain how their retail businesses works; discuss their dependence on tobacco sales for keeping their businesses afloat and for providing good jobs to local residents. Establishing a good relationship with local lawmakers and making sure that they understand the steps taken to prevent the sale of tobacco to minors are both key steps to take in order to preserve their business.

– Contributed by Thomas Briant, executive director and legal counsel of NATO, the National Association of Tobacco Outlets

This story first appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details. 

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