Hide-and-Seek Cigarettes: Mayor Bloomberg’s Newest Anti-Smoking Measure

by Mike Miesen

You have to give the man points for persistence.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a proposal that would keep cigarettes and other tobacco products out of sight and, ideally, out of mind. It comes on the heels of a New York State Supreme Court judge’s admonishment and denunciation of Bloomberg’s well-publicized and passion-inducing soda ban.

The new plan would force bodegas, delis, and other sellers of cigarettes to hide them from view—though stores would still be allowed to advertise the sale of cigarettes and their prices. The justification for the proposal is to two-fold: first, as Bloomberg put it, to “…help reduce impulse purchases, and if it does, it will literally save lives;” second, to prevent children and young adults from becoming addicted to nicotine in the first place.

Tellingly, it seems that Bloomberg has learned his lesson from the soda ban cacophony. One of the issues with the soda ban was that, as Judge Milton Tingling argued, the authority to “limit or ban a legal item under the guise of ‘controlling chronic disease” fell to the City Council. Bloomberg went through the New York City Board of Health for the soda ban; for the cigarette proposal, he’s working through City Council.

Cigarette companies and owners of delis and bodegas in New York City are, naturally, against the measure—and the legal opposition is expected to be fierce. This type of regulation has been tried, unsuccessfully, before: in Haverstraw, NY, a village with a population of 11,000 and “15-20 stores that sell cigarettes.” Tobacco companies filed suit and the city, too cash-strapped to litigate, rescinded the law.

But whether it would actually do them harm is an open question; there isn’t evidence on whether the “hide in plain sight” method will prevent individuals from taking up smoking or to partially curb their habit. Other measures, such as increases in cigarette taxesmass media campaigns, and bans on cigarette advertising, are politically unpalatable, too, but have been shown to reduce the incidence, prevalence, and quantity of smoking in children, young adults, and adults.

Where does that leave us – will this plan go the way of the soda ban? It’s probably a bit too early to tell; powerful constituencies and the ever-present tobacco lobbyists are still circling their wagons, and the general public has yet to weigh in.

If past is prologue, though, one thing is for sure: this won’t be Bloomberg’s last public health crusade.

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Mike is a healthcare consultant currently on loan to the Ugandan Ministry of Health (through a NGO), leading a project to reduce maternal mortality. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMiesen or subscribe to the blog.

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