For teens and tobacco, out of sight might mean out of mind

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Keeping tobacco products out of sight in convenience stores may make teens less likely to smoke, a U.S. study suggests.

To test the power of store displays to sway adolescent smoking habits, researchers created three different experimental convenience stores, sent teens shopping without telling them the true purpose of the trip, then asked afterward whether the teens thought they might try cigarettes any time soon.

Teens who shopped in stores where tobacco displays were kept out of sight were 11 percent less susceptible to the idea of smoking in the future than their peers who saw cigarettes prominently displayed behind the cashier, an array known as a "power wall" in the world of retailing.

"A highly conspicuous power wall conveys all sorts of positive messages about tobacco that could increase risk of use," said lead study author William Shadel, a behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

"When the power wall is hidden, those positive messages are no longer being presented and their effect on behavior is minimized," Shadel added by email.

Power walls in retail locations typically display hundreds of tobacco products along with branded posters, product slogans and other materials promoting these products, Shadel and colleagues note in the journal Tobacco Control. Tobacco companies increasingly rely on power walls to promote products they can no longer advertise in other ways.

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For the current study, researchers had teens visit replica convenience stores with one of three designs: a power wall right behind the cashier, a power wall in a less obvious location in the store, or a power wall hidden from view.

They recruited 241 youngsters aged 17 and under and gave them $10 to spend any way they wanted in the experimental stores, telling the adolescents that the study was designed to analyze their shopping habits.

Teens filled out questionnaires before and after they went shopping in one of these three experimental stores. After shopping, some questions on smoking included whether the youth thought they would try cigarettes any time soon, anytime in the next year, or if one of their best friends offered them a cigarette.

Hiding the power wall significantly reduced teens susceptibility to future cigarette smoking compared to leaving the tobacco promotions visible behind the cashier.

But moving the power wall to a different location in the store didn't have any effect.

One limitation of the study is that it only looked at cigarettes, not at whether other tobacco products might become more or less appealing to teens depending on what advertising they noticed in what location in the store. The researchers also lacked data on actual smoking behavior.

Even so, the findings suggest that keeping tobacco products out of sight in stores may make sense from a public health perspective, Dr. Joseph DiFranza, a researcher in family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

The trouble with teens and retail displays is they may easily be influenced by the advertising images they see, said Thomas Wills, a researcher in cancer prevention and control at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center in Honolulu who wasn't involved in the study.

"Teens may not go into a store thinking about smoking, but the advertising can arouse these cognitions, and the more powerful the display, probably the longer time the viewer will think about smoking," Wills, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.