Teenagers are less likely to buy cigarettes if they are not displayed in plain sight behind shop counters, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
Although all tobacco advertising, including most in-store display ads, are banned in South Africa, cigarette advertising at the point-of-sale is common in many convenience stores in the country.
“We know the retail environment is a very important place for tobacco companies to advertise and market their products,” said the lead researcher, Dr Annice Kim in a Reuters Health report.
“They’re prominently displayed at the point-of-sale, and it exposes all customers, including kids.”
The research team from an independent research institute, RTI International in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, United States (US), wanted to test the effects of cigarette displays on teen shopping and opinion. However, they could not conduct a real-world experiment where they could cover up the advertising as these displays are legal in the US.
They therefore designed a virtual simulated online convenience store where participants had to select four items: a snack from the aisles, a drink from the coolers and two products of their choice from the checkout counter.
More than 1 200 children between the ages of 13 and 17 participated in the research.
In some scenarios, the cabinet behind the counter prominently displayed cigarettes, while in others the cabinet was closed and the display covered up.
Any teens that asked the cashier for cigarettes were denied because of age - but what the researchers were interested in was how many asked.
Depending on other changes they made to the virtual convenience stores, the researchers found that between 16 and 24 percent of participants tried to buy tobacco when the display was open, compared to between nine and 11 percent when it was closed.
In a survey conducted after the virtual shopping experience, 32 percent of the participants said they were aware cigarettes were available for sale when the display case was closed in their virtual store, compared to 85 percent of those who had the open version.
“Policies that require retailers to store tobacco products out of view... could have a positive public health impact,” Kim told Reuters Health.