Sign Language

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Sign Language

By Mehgan Belanger - 09/07/2009
What's black and white, and coming to a c-store back bar as of June 2010? Any retail tobacco signage, as mandated by the recently passed Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation over the tobacco industry.

It's no joke, however, that elements of this law will change tobacco retailing as the convenience store industry knows it. Retailers should be aware of the impact these mandates will have on what is still the No. 1 in-store category by sales, along with what is required of them under the law.

The law passed in June incorporates a set of rules issued August 1996, by the FDA, which requires manufacturers, distributors and retailers to advertise cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products using only black text on a white background, with no color advertising allowed in a retail location, including on signs, posters, shelving and displays, according to Tom Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO). These limitations will also apply to advertising in newspapers, magazines, periodicals, billboards, posters, placards and at the point-of-sale, and will take effect June 22, 2010, he said.

The black and white signage, also known as "tombstone" advertising, will make the tobacco section in a convenience store "much more stark due to the lack of color in advertising and displays," said Briant.

Also appearing on all advertising and marketing materials, as well as tobacco packaging, will be new black and white warning statements. Under the law, cigarette packages must have warnings take up the top 50 percent of the front and back of the packs. Similar warning statements will be required for smokeless tobacco products. For advertisements and posters, the warning label statement will take up at least 20 percent of the advertisement area.

It is important to note retailers will not violate the warning label requirements provided that:

-- Packaging sold contains the required warning labels;
-- Packages are supplied to retailers by a license- or permit-holding tobacco product manufacturer, importer or distributor; and,
-- Packages are not altered by the retailer in a way that impairs the warning labels.

If that isn't enough, the law also calls for the addition of graphic label statements to the warnings no later than 24 months after the law's enactment. The color graphics could show the negative health effects of smoking, such as a tar-blackened lung. Imagine a hungry tobacco customer's reaction to such graphics when he or she arrives at the checkout with a foodservice item and asks for a pack of cigarettes. The customer's appetite may just disappear.

But there's an element in the new FDA law that could be even worse for retailers than the impending signage requirements -- the section giving other federal, state and local authorities the power to ban tobacco sales, as well as its promotion and distribution, to any person of any age.

"The potential for such severe restrictions as an outright ban on the sale of tobacco products in a given city or town would have a substantial financial impact on retail tobacco sales to adult consumers," Briant said.

Think this is too nebulous to worry about now? Think again. The New York City Health Department already proposed tobacco retailers post signs in stores featuring images of black lungs and the like to discourage smoking, in a move that was called "complementary" to the FDA legislation. Hearings will be held and a vote on the measure is set for this month, but the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS) already came out against the proposal in published reports.