Health: Teens sent into markets and gas stations by an anti-smoking group say posters and displays are often near candy aisles and at eye level to youngsters.

Health: Teens sent into markets and gas stations by an anti-smoking group say posters and displays are often near candy aisles and at eye level to youngsters.

Stores’ Tobacco Ads Targeting Children, New Survey Contends

VENTURA — Children are exposed to a barrage of smoking advertisements near cashiers and candy aisles every time they walk into a market, a survey released Monday found.

A regional anti-tobacco education group sent 54 teenagers to more than 250 markets, convenience stores and gas stations in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties to count the number of tobacco ads. Working in teams, the youths found that children see an average of 20 different pitches by cigarette makers.

Anti-smoking activists say the results confirm their belief that cigarette manufacturers have shifted their advertising focus to local markets and gas stations following a 1998 ban on billboard spots and other selling techniques designed to draw in children.

“It was shocking to me that I didn’t ever notice it before,” said Kate Barton, 15, of Camarillo, one of those who gathered information. “It made you feel almost angry, that they were so shamelessly trying to target little kids.”

In Ventura County, the Point of Purchase Tobacco Advertising and Research Team focused on 116 retail outlets in Oxnard, Moorpark and Camarillo when canvassing from October to January.

“We’re raising awareness about the new battleground in the war against tobacco, which is point-of-purchase advertising,” said Joey Bilotta, assistant director of the Tri-County Regional Team, a Santa Barbara-based group funded with money from tobacco taxes by the California Department of Health Services.

Jan Smith, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the country’s second-largest cigarette manufacturer, said a 1998 lawsuit settlement between several states and the tobacco industry made markets one of the few places where manufacturers can still advertise their product. Retailers are required to check the ID of any minor attempting to buy cigarettes, she added.

“We do not want youth to smoke–period,” Smith said. “If you look at all the studies, the primary influence on children who make the mistake of smoking is peer or family influence. It’s not the advertising.”

The survey unveiled significant differences in the frequency and location of tobacco advertising, depending on the community.

In Oxnard and Camarillo, up to 74% of stores near schools, homes and parks posted tobacco advertisements in windows, while in Moorpark the figure was about 40%. Camarillo stores had the most signs near candy aisles–14 out of 43 shops visited, the report said.

Surveyors also found tobacco ads placed at eye level for young children at seven stores in Oxnard, 11 in Moorpark and seven in Camarillo. The average number of signs per store ranged from 13 to 18 in Ventura County.

“I learned how much of a target I am,” said Andrew Cantwell, 15, a student at Moorpark High School.

Nine teenagers involved in an Oxnard youth program helped the regional team complete the survey in that city. They said it was an eye-opening experience.

“Kids were going into these stores, passing by all the ads, and on the other side was the candy,” said Fernando Gonzalez, 16. “I wouldn’t want my kids even going to these stores.”

The youth program, made up of about 30 teenagers, deals with issues such as smoking, alcohol use and teen pregnancy, said Stephanie Juarez, one of the coordinators. She said the group’s sponsor, Latino advocacy group El Concilio, is particularly concerned about smoking ads targeting Latino youth.