RICHMOND, Va. – A federal judge will soon decide whether your next tank of gas or bottle of soda comes with a free apology from the Marlboro man and Joe Camel.
A recent ruling ordering a multimedia blitz stating that the nation’s largest tobacco companies lied about the dangers of smoking left open the possibility that retailers could be required to post large displays with the mea culpas.
Retail trade groups are upset about the possibility the displays would commandeer their most valuable selling space and imply guilt by association.
As part of a case the government brought in 1999, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler last month ordered the tobacco companies to pay for corrective statements on cigarette packs, in print and on TV, the radio and the Internet. The statements also must disclose smoking’s health effects, including the death on average of 1,200 people a day.
While the cigarette makers and the Justice Department this month began discussing how to carry out the corrective statements, a footnote in the ruling said the issue of whether retailers that have agreements with tobacco companies to sell their products – which most sellers do – will have to place the placards front and center in their stores “will be resolved in the near future.”
Retail trade groups argue the move would infringe on their First Amendment and property rights. But public health organizations say the tobacco companies have long used retail displays for deceptive marketing and that retailers – the typical meeting place between the cigarettes and their makers – are an important place to communicate the public confession.
“It’s just a vital location for these corrective statements so that youth and others who are going to buy cigarettes see [them],” said Howard Crystal, an attorney who represented several public health groups, including the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
In her original 2006 ruling, the judge noted that retail stores have become one of the “central vehicles for communication of brand imagery and promotional offers” and “create tobacco-friendly environments containing enticing displays, competitive prices and visible point-of-sale advertising.”
An appeals court sent the ruling back to the lower court to decide how to better address the rights of stores that sell tobacco products.
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. convenience stores’ $190 billion in annual sales comes from tobacco products, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Retailers who refuse to put up the signs could also lose millions they receive from tobacco companies under agreements that give stores rebates to help lower cigarette prices and payments for prominently displaying products.