A day before Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced record lows for smoking in New York City on September 15, Bronx anti-smoking advocates were on the ground in Highbridge, still trying to put out a habit that has persisted despite citywide measures to curb it.
Coordinators from the American Lung Association and Healthy Highbridge are part of a campaign to stop point-of-sale smoking advertisements—the cigarette ads that plaster the insides and outsides of stores, as well as the “power wall” of cigarettes and advertisements directly behind the cash registers.
“They can’t advertise anymore on TV, billboards, clothing—this is the last arena for them to advertise,” said Spitzner, as she walked from bodega to bodega with Rios on Ogden Avenue, photographing what they said are new tobacco advertisements. “That’s where they dump all their money.” Rios, who was part of the Bronx Smoke-Free coalition that advocated to make New York City parks smoke-free earlier this year, said that the concentration of point-of-sale tobacco advertising has gotten worse in recent years.
Although the percentage of smokers citywide has plummeted (from 17.5 percent in 2007 to 14 percent, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene), current smoking rates in the South Bronx are the same as 2007. In South Bronx, 19 percent of the adult population and 5.2 percent of 14 to 18-year-olds smoke, compared to 17.8 percent for adults and 5 percent for children in 2007, according to the Department of Health spokeswoman Kari Auer. South Bronx has the second highest percentage of smokers in the city, right after Staten Island. Spitzner and Rios believe that if they can curb point-of-sale advertisements, they can decrease smoking, particularly among young people.
The two were staking out Highbridge Wednesday for a “walking tour” for local politicians next month. Their hope is that after politicians see the saturation of tobacco advertisements in Highbridge, they will enact legislation to curb point-of-sale advertising.
A majority of signs that blanket most bodegas in the area are for tobacco products. Many of those signs—particularly those for Newport—appear to be very new.
“Menthol advertisements target African Americans and young people,” said Rios, citing the large percentage of blacks who smoke menthol cigarettes. According to a 2005 Harvard study, advertisements for menthol cigarettes are more heavily marketed in areas with large minority populations.
According to the district profile for Community Board 4, of which Highbridge is a part, nearly half of the area’s residents are black and a third are under 18.
“We’re trying to educate kids, lawmakers, parents and teachers of tobacco’s practice of targeting youth,” said Sheelah Feinberg, director of the New York City Coalition For a Smoke-Free City.
Feinberg said that 90 percent of adult smokers started when they were teens, an age group that is particularly susceptible to advertisements.
“When you’re a young kid and you go to the store to buy gum or water, when you go to make that purchase, you’re bombarded by ads,” Feinberg said, pointing out that many of the power wall advertisements are located at kids’ eye-level.
“For us, the big concern is that the tobacco industry is always going after the next generation,” she said.
Rios believes that unless lawmakers halt point-of-sale advertisements, young people will continue to be vulnerable to ads because vendors will continue to put them up. Vendors receive discounts on their cigarettes depending on the prominence of their stores’ advertisements, according to Rios.
After multiple calls, voice mails and emails to local and national representatives at Lorillard Tobacco Company, which produces menthol Newport cigarettes, no one at the company would comment.
The effectiveness of smoking advertising is difficult to measure since it would require exposing a large number of people to long-term cigarette advertising. Tobacco companies usually contend that advertisement is not to attract new smokers but to broaden market share for a certain brand.
All vendors whose buildings featured advertisements said they receive a discount on their cigarettes for placing the cigarette advertisements inside and outside their stores.
Jin Kim, manager of K.J.Y. Fruit on Gerard Avenue and 161st Street, said the decision to put up ads is about money.
“This is a business,” Kim said. “We sell cigarettes to make money. I don’t like that, but it’s a business.”
A cashier at the nearby Nadal 3 Deli said he’d be fine with giving up the advertisements. “It’s all good so New Yorkers stop smoking,” he said, adding that those who already smoke will continue to come in with or without the advertisement.