City vows to get tough on cigarette ad signage

On the outside of one convenience store in Dorchester, at the corner of Adams Street and Centre Street, they spread like a rash: 23 ads for eight brands of cigarettes. The ads run from doors to windows, and around the corner to the side of the building. There are even ads partially blocked by other ads.

For Mohamed Chibou, a compliance officer in the City of Boston Tobacco Control Program, the sight is fairly common among convenience stores in areas such as Dorchester and Roxbury.

"As you look at the advertising in front, it's mostly tobacco ads," he said, "and there's a reason for it to be there."

Youth activists from Mission Hill, Dorchester, and other neighborhoods say the reason is to get more young people started on smoking. And, on Dec. 20, city officials stood with them to announce tougher enforcement of city regulations on advertising.

According to a survey by the Mission Hill - based youth group Sociedad Latina, the neighborhood with the highest percentage of store ads promoting tobacco products was Dorchester, with more than 49 percent. The figures were almost as high for Mattapan, South Boston, and Mission Hill.

"You go to Centre Street in West Roxbury, you won't see these signs," said Mayor Thomas Menino.

"What we notice with a lot of stores in Dorchester and Roxbury," said Chibou, "is that pretty much the whole front of the store is covered in tobacco advertising, and much of it at eye-level for children." Even some stores with fewer ads visible from outside have several bunched together around their checkout areas, where they're hard to miss.

Youth activists have been campaigning for ad restrictions for the last four years. They say the store ads often appeal to the young by design and their eye-level.

"They see the advertisements and they think it's cool, it's colorful," said Shanaya Coke, a member of BOLD ("Breath of Life Dorchester") Teens.

The survey by Sociedad Latina also shows that more than one-third of the tobacco ads were in stores near a school, community center, or playground.

"A lot of kids between the ages of four and eight are going to see these advertisements, not adults," said 15-year-old Jonathan Ondrejko, a member of the Healthy Roslindale Coalition, at a City Council hearing on storefront ads earlier this month.

Tobacco companies agreed to restrict marketing to youth under a legal settlement with 46 states in 1998. Lorillard, which makes Newport cigarettes, has a youth smoking prevention program. The makers of Kool cigarettes, RJ Reynolds, say on their website that their standards include minimizing "exposure of minors to tobacco advertising." But another corporate standard says that communication with adult smokers regarding their brand choices "is essential for effective competition."

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco companies increased their marketing budgets in the first three years after the settlement by two-thirds. "Most of the increase," says the campaign website, "was in retail store marketing, which is highly effective at reaching kids."

Officials and advocates also put some of the blame for smoking by young people on magazine advertising and earlier cutbacks in prevention programs by the state. But the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids notes that studies show 75 percent of teens shop at convenience stores at least once a week.

"Those signs are not just for business inside the store," said City Councillor Mike Ross. "I think those signs on the front are driving business outside the store for future cigarette purchases."

City regulations restrict advertising by volume and placement. They limit ads to only 30 percent of the area in windows, and ads displayed more than 15 days require a permit. At a City Council hearing chaired by Ross earlier this month, officials talked about possibly changing the regulations. But it's expected any attempt to ban ads for one type of product such as cigarettes would trigger a legal challenge.

Even supporters of restrictions acknowledge there will be a financial price for storeowners who get paid to display tobacco ads.

"There needs to be responsibility in advertising. I don't think anybody disagrees with that," said the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Barbara Ferrer. "And some of the responsibility should be borne by storeowners as well."

Officials announced their call for limiting ads at Tropic Food Market, a family-owned convenience on Blue Hill Avenue, in Dorchester. The store sells cigarettes and displays some advertising inside, but no ads are visible from the street.

"Our concern is for the teen, young kids around here, what they're exposed to," said co-owner Karen Wint.

Wint says there's also opposition to smoking at her church.

"We have three kids at home," she said. "We don't want them to get involved with these ads."