I remember it clearly. It was an overcast day in June 2002 in Lancaster County, Pa., when I attended a meeting that has always left me with a lasting impression. As the tobacco buyer for a major oil company, I quietly sat (not something I’m known for) and I listened to the discussion that one day would make Lancaster County tobacco free! Quite frightening was this agenda, as it would make it illegal to grow any tobacco, market tobacco or use any form of tobacco within the county boundaries. Could this ever happen?
Today, convenience stores are faced with a future that will be greatly affected by future FDA regulation. The bill imposes major regulatory obstacles in the marketing of any new tobacco products. It treats tobacco products like medical devices. However, most of the regulatory provisions make no sense for application to tobacco products. Product changes which fueled the recent unprecedented growth of the "other tobacco" portion of the convenience channel will now need to go through cumbersome review.
Approval or denial will be given based on whether the product or its changes are deemed "in the best interests of public health." The standards are broadly defined in the bill with the goal of reducing overall tobacco consumption. This bill will not allow the FDA to ban the product or reduce nicotine to zero but its provisions will allow for the FDA to impose any requirements or prohibitions it sees fit.
It is clear from my understanding that the FDA would have broad authority to make tobacco products highly unattractive to adult smokers and highly inaccessible to the public. All of these factors will most definitely affect the convenience store channel in a negative way.
Know the "Risks"
Another area of the bill that will affect the convenience channel of trade is that the bill prevents the communication about significant differences among the levels of risk presented by different types of tobacco products. The convenience store channel needs to address this lack of good practice and realize that not all tobacco products are the same in the spectrum of risk, or in other words, some are riskier than others.
At a recent conference on "Harm Reduction" many attendees were extremely concerned that this message is being squashed by those who deny this truth and ultimately want to ban the use of all tobacco products.
If moist smokeless tobacco is safer than cigarettes why must it post the following: "Warning: This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes"? If, like I proposed in an earlier article, "Who Said Tobacco Can’t Be Safer?" (CSD, May 2008) that one day in the future a brilliant mind cracks the code and finds a way to make tobacco safer would this legislation allow for this claim? I think not.
Would not the convenience channel of trade benefit the most from the sales of a tobacco product that truly was a safer or safe product? Wouldn’t you want to be able to communicate that message?
H.R. 1108 eliminates federal preemption of marketing and advertising which would allow states or local governments to set its own standards. They would be able to enact any restriction "that is in addition to, or more stringent than," those in the bill. One can only imagine the nightmare this would present to national distributors and the convenience channel of trade.
A bill that one would assume would create uniformity in the industry most likely will lead to chaos. Is it not possible that a local government could one day decide to enact a much more stringent law that banned tobacco from being grown, marketed or used within its boundaries?
As I look to the past is there a glimpse of the future? The foundation of a movement was evidenced back in June 2002. If the movement succeeded and you operated a convenience store in Tobacco Free Lancaster County would your business survive? How would you replace the lost sales and profits from tobacco sales that are no longer allowed? H.R. 1108 as it is currently written puts your business at risk. H.R. 1108 needs to be opposed.
Lou Maiellano spent more than 20 years with Sunoco, Wawa and Mobil and currently operates TobaccoToday.info, an interactive tobacco industry blog. He can be reached at (267) 229-3856.