Tobacco companies can no longer advertise through billboards, radio or television, but they can still pour millions of dollars into “power walls.”
The walls are hard to miss, located behind the cashier at many convenience stores — an expanse of hundreds of tobacco products, logos and colorful posters. The vibrant barrage of tobacco advertising worries many who work to keep kids from smoking.
“We don’t have tobacco billboards or tobacco ads on TV, but in Oregon, the tobacco industry spends $112 million every year on ads and promotions,” said Janet Jones, community health educator for Umatilla County Public Health. “The tobacco industry spends an inordinate amount of money at the point of sale.”
Umatilla County recently won a $133,000 grant to fund a tobacco prevention coordinator. The mission? To make tobacco less appealing to youth.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research, power walls and other displays seduce young, would-be smokers. The opposite is also true for adolescents: If smoking is out of sight, it’s out of mind. However, more than 90 percent of middle school and high school students reported seeing tobacco ads inside convenience stores, on store fronts or online. Research has established a causal relationship between advertising and teens starting to smoke.
“We know kids who regularly see tobacco advertising are more likely to experiment with tobacco,” Jones said.
Grant funding will allow the county to explore the issue. Coordinator selection is in process. Jones expects the 18-month effort to spark “an open and honest conversation about how tobacco is sold in our local communities,” starting in Pendleton, Hermiston, Milton-Freewater and Umatilla. The subject is a relevant one, said Jones.
“Tobacco is still the leading preventable cause of death,” she said.
According to a statewide survey by the Oregon Health Authority, about 12,700 people in Umatilla County smoke. Twenty-three percent of Umatilla County adults smoke compared with the statewide average of 19 percent. Almost 3,000 have serious illness caused by tobacco and each year 148 of them die a tobacco-related death. More than a quarter of 11th graders smoke or use non-cigarette tobacco.
The effort to tackle the issue locally rather than at the state level came after the demise of a bill to license tobacco retailers. Senate Bill 1559 would have combated sales to minors by licensing retailers with the Department of Revenue and revoking the license for repeat violations, much the same as with alcohol.
“Oregon is one of the few states that doesn’t have tobacco retail licenses,” Jones said. “In Oregon you have to have a license to sell Christmas trees, but you don’t need a license to sell tobacco.”
The bill was set aside after it became something of a partisan bargaining chip, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who accused Republicans of acting childishly and putting politics ahead of children.
Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena) said the Senate simply ran out of time to sand down some of the rough spots before the short session ended. An example of a rough spot was a section of the bill that would have prevented new stores from selling tobacco within 1,000 feet of schools. Current businesses would have been grandfathered in, but transfers to new owners, even those in the family, were not.
“In Athena, we have two establishments that would both fall within 1,000 feet,” he said. “If they sold the businesses, the grandfathers would not go with them.”
He expects a similar bill to show up in next year’s full session.
“I’m sure it will be back and we’ll have time to work through it,” he said.
A couple of Oregon counties (Lane and Multnomah) and one city (Cottage Grove) aren’t waiting. They acted to require licenses at the local level to sell tobacco or inhalant delivery systems such as e-cigarettes. Umatilla County is taking this first step to develop a strategy.
Jones said the Umatilla County effort will engage retailers, community partners and especially youth.
“Youth have a lot of power and they care about their generation,” Jones said.
Toni Walters, who manages Dave’s Chevron, explained that the “power wall” is the result of agreements with tobacco companies.
“Tobacco companies offer merchant contracts that bring down prices of cigarettes,” Walters said. “In exchange, the power wall is put up the way they want it.”
Shawn Abdullah, owner of Bare Bones in Pendleton, didn’t reject the idea of working with the county’s new coordinator, but he doesn’t necessarily think it’s the correct approach. Many of the young smokers he knows have parents who smoked and provided a bad example. Boosting the smoking age to 21 as California is considering might push off the decision to smoke until they are more mature.
“I think it’s the only way,” he said. In any case, “we always ID anyone who looks 26 or younger.”
He stood near the store’s wall of cigarettes, cans of chewing tobacco, vaping supplies and tobacco posters. The store focuses on adult products such as tobacco and alcohol, though it also offers beverages and snacks.
Jone said tobacco advertising in stores affects not only adolescents, but former smokers and other adults who are trying to quit.
“We are really out to keep the next generation from being addicted to tobacco,” she said. “We also want to help the 75 percent of tobacco users who are trying to quit.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or call 541-966-0810.