Background: Tobacco retailers are key players in the ongoing tobacco epidemic. Tobacco outlet density is linked to a greater likelihood of youth and adult smoking and greater difficulty quitting. While public policy efforts to address the tobacco problem at the retail level have been limited, some retailers have voluntarily ended tobacco sales. A previous pilot study examined this phenomenon in California, a state with a strong tobacco program focused on denormalizing smoking and the tobacco industry. We sought to learn what motivated retailers in other states to end tobacco sales and how the public and media responded.
Methods: We conducted interviews with owners, managers, or representatives of six grocery stores in New York and Ohio that had voluntarily ended tobacco sales since 2007. We also conducted unobtrusive observations at stores and analyzed media coverage of each retailer's decision.
Results: Grocery store owners ended tobacco sales for two reasons, alone or in combination: health or ethics-related, including a desire to send a consistent health message to employees and customers, and business-related, including declining tobacco sales or poor fit with the store's image. The decision to end sales often appeared to resolve troubling contradictions between retailers' values and selling deadly products. New York retailers attributed declining sales to high state tobacco taxes. All reported largely positive customer reactions and most received media coverage. Forty-one percent of news items were letters to the editor or editorials; most (69%) supported the decision.
Conclusion: Voluntary decisions by retailers to abandon tobacco sales may lay the groundwork for mandatory policies and further denormalize tobacco. Our study also suggests that high tobacco taxes may have both direct and indirect effects on tobacco use. Highlighting the contradictions between being a responsible business and selling deadly products may support voluntary decisions by retailers to end tobacco sales.