When you think of "product placement" it might remind you of the little boy feeding Reese's Pieces to E.T. or perhaps a prominently displayed logo on the T-shirt worn by a popular actor on the screen. However, good product placement is designed to be subliminal so you are not even conscious that it is having an effect on you. Sometimes this is harmless marketing, and sometimes it is not so harmless.
When purchasing groceries at Food Lion, gas and snacks at Sheetz or and at 7-Eleven, or bargains at the Dollar Store, you might not notice the advertisements for tobacco products surrounding you at every step. Before you even enter the shops, you are often confronted by the windows emblazoned with brightly colored enticements to try their cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. As you shop you cannot escape the presence of large glass cabinets showing off these products, and when you pay for your purchases the "power walls" of tobacco products behind the cashiers make it quite clear that the establishments really want you to purchase (and use) them.
But these products are very different from groceries, snacks, and gas. These are highly addictive and even lethal products, and the fact that our society and our government have allowed them to be marketed this way does not change these facts. Children and teenagers learn from this marketing that these products are attractive, acceptable, and even "safe." Studies have shown a link between youth exposure to tobacco product displays and an increased likelihood that these youth will start smoking. Customers who enter the store with no intention to purchase the products often yield to the sort of impulse purchasing which is the goal of these sorts of advertisements.
Local governments have legitimate reasons for wanting to restrict the placement of tobacco products and advertising in retail stores, and much more can be done in this regard to better protect our young people and to respect the efforts of those who wish not to smoke. First, the magnitude of problem must be appreciated by the general public, and following that, better laws need to be enacted which will limit the harm being done by these practices. Ideally, in order to ensure that points of sale of tobacco products do not have any promotional elements, these measures can work toward a ban on any display or visibility of tobacco products and advertisements at retail outlets.
Over the past 100 years the American public has become increasingly aware of the tremendous harm done by tobacco, but the advertising industry's continuing role in promoting and "legitimatizing" the products continues to renew the market for them. Make no mistake; if these advertisements did not induce more impulse buying and recruit more young people to start smoking, they would not continue doing it. These companies will continue to do this, and we must continue to resist.
John W. Aldis, MD