The Power Of The Pen


Retailers need to raise their voices on issues from tobacco regulation to cigarette taxes

Anyone older than 30 should remember the AT&T commercials that urged customers to "reach out and touch someone." And while it was a widely popular advertising slogan three decades ago, the sentiment still rings true today — and not just for telephone users.

Since I joined Convenience Store News last fall, it is a message I have heard time and time again. Most noticeably, while visiting Capitol Hill with lobbyists from NACS in March, several senators repeated the mantra throughout the day in regard to swipe fee reform, urging the convenience store community to let their elected officials know where it stands on the issue.

Of course, it makes sense. With thousands of constituents, how are lawmakers supposed to know what issues are important and how best they could serve the people who propelled them into office if their constituents do not make their voices heard?

Tobacco has always been one of the hot-button issues in the c-store industry. And with ever-increasing taxes and regulations, and a possible menthol ban under review by the Food and Drug Administration, now is the time to raise your voices, according to R.J. ReynoldsTobacco Co.

Steve Kottak, director of external relations, trade marketing for R.J. Reynolds, has worked closely with his colleague David Riser, vice president of external relations, trade marketing, to get that message out. Together, they have compiled the Take Action Checklist outlining the process retailers need to take to be heard.

"We tell them to get involved, make your opinions known and remind elected officials that as a business and an employer, you are an important part of the community," Kottak explained.

R.J. Reynolds' initiative places an emphasis on building relationships with lawmakers and helping them understand the issues convenience store operators face every day — whether it is tobacco regulations, swipe fee reform or rules regarding advertising.

"Retailers want to know, 'How can I do this? I am just one store or one person,'" Kottak said. "That is why we put together this checklist."

The checklist includes registering to vote; contacting your local legislators by phone, e-mail or letter; educating your employees; visiting your legislators' offices; inviting your legislators to your place of business; involving your legislators in your business; and attending a Day on the Hill event organized by your state trade association. These key steps will work with elected officials at all levels — local, state and federal.

Kottak offered up a few additional suggestions. If retailers are having a new store grand opening, or if they've just finished a renovation, they should invite their legislators and their staffers to be part of the celebration. Also, if retailers issue newsletters or press releases, they should include legislators and their staff on the distribution list.

"These steps not only help provide an opportunity for retailers to get to know their legislators, but for legislators to get to know them," Kottak said.

R.J. Reynolds handed out the Take Action Checklist at the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) show in April and it was well received. The company has also put together a short PowerPoint presentation for its trade marketing personnel to show customers.

"In November, a lot of new officials were elected to go to Washington and they may not know how different legislations will impact the retail businesses in their districts," Kottak said. "By keeping legislators informed, they can more effectively fulfill their role as a legislator."

In addition to the Take Action Checklist, R.J. Reynolds also has two websites retailers can use as a tool: and

"We work hand-in-hand with retailers on many issues, depending on the state and the threat. Response has been very positive; it's a strong partnership," Kottak noted.

He realizes that retailers — large or small, chain or single store — can go to the FDA website for information on tobacco regulations or they could follow issues through their local news, but R.J. Reynolds tries to make it easier for them to keep on top of things. "We want to be a resource for them, realizing they have a job to do running their business," he added.

For comments, please contact Melissa Kress, Associate Editor, at [email protected].

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