An Association for All: 20 Years of NATO

    The National Association of Tobacco Outlets celebrates its 20th anniversary and makes its case for why every tobacco retailer should be a member.

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    How NATO goes about completing its work has also changed slightly over the years. NATO has used technology to customize its grassroots advocacy program, allowing retail members to send a letter to all of the state and federal lawmakers that represent the legislative districts where its members’ stores are located with just a few clicks of a button. This has allowed retailers to easily and very quickly voice their opinions with lawmakers. In addition, NATO has embraced the use of social media to push out news, updates and information to its members as well as the general public. These updates, typically about proposed ordinances, are used to urge businesses to speak out against legislation that could impose restrictions on legal tobacco products.

    Strength in Numbers
    NATO has accomplished much on the behalf of tobacco retailers over the course of 20 years, but it’s the organization’s focus on togetherness that often gets overlooked. Since those early conversations before the association officially launched in 2001, the primary vision that brought NATO’s mission into focus was the desire to create an organization that brought the entire industry together. NATO, it was decided early on, would be a collection of voices and individuals that would work together to protect and preserve the right to sell and purchase legal tobacco products anywhere in the U.S. “That vision has been achieved based on the growth and size of NATO. Moreover, working with retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers has allowed NATO to be the premier tobacco-related trade association in the country,” proclaims Briant.

    Since launching in 2001, NATO has formed a close working relationship with a number of state and national trade groups to help it respond to local and state legislative issues. Out of these relationships, NATO formed the National Response Network (NRN) over two years ago, which comprises more than 70 state and national trade organizations. Through the NRN, NATO sends alerts on local tobacco ordinances to trade associations in the state where a local ordinance is proposed along with key talking points and other information about the ordinance. The state association will then send information on to any of its members with stores in the locality where tobacco regulations are being considered for the purpose of making it easier for retailers to become active and oppose any potentially harmful local anti-tobacco ordinances.

    Trade associations are not the only ones that NATO wants to see involved in its work. Retailers and manufacturers of tobacco products are also encouraged to join NATO. The information that the association shares with its members and the actions it takes on behalf of tobacco retailers and manufacturers stem from an engaged membership. With new regulations being introduced each year and impacting tobacco products’ ability to be sold and enjoyed freely in the U.S., there’s no better time than the present for retailers to get involved and become members of NATO.

    “NATO is the only national trade association that expends all of its resources on tobacco-related issues that impact retailers,” says Briant. “The expertise of NATO is second to none on tobacco legislation and FDA regulations. Retailers need to belong to NATO so they can be educated about local, state and federal issues and then become engaged on the issue by communicating with lawmakers and testifying at hearings.”

    By becoming a member of NATO, retailers are provided all of the information and tools needed to communicate with lawmakers. Briant stresses the importance of retailers communicating with their local and state lawmakers and doing the work of educating them on the impact of proposed tobacco restrictions. “The advocates who are proposing these restrictions are influencing lawmakers on these issues, and it is incumbent on retailers to provide lawmakers with factual information to make an informed decision,” adds Briant.

    Retailers can become better advocates by attending public hearings that involve a proposed local ordinance or state bill that would have negative consequences for their stores and businesses. One positive change brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise of virtual meetings, allowing for retailers to engage with lawmakers from the safety and comfort of their stores and homes as they speak out against unreasonable and unfair restrictions. It’s one of Briant’s and NATO’s ongoing hopes that elected officials begin to understand the important roles that tobacco retailers have in local economies and the burden that unreasonable taxes and restrictive regulations have on those businesses. That desire is driving much of NATO’s work today, as it has for the past 20 years, and as it will for the years to come.

    This story first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.