New York Retailers Under Siege

NYACS, retailers, distributors and manufacturers are working together to neutralize local tobacco regulations that impede retailers in doing business.

By Jim Calvin

With mounting intensity, localized attacks on the tobacco category are spreading like wildfire across New York.

In the past six months alone, three more upstate counties and two large Long Island towns have jumped on the Tobacco 21 bandwagon. In the process, some of them enacted a ban on new tobacco outlets near schools or playgrounds and/or a redundant local licensing requirement for stores selling tobacco.

Meanwhile, it’s a general-alarm blaze in New York City, where the city council is now considering a suite of legislation that is ostensibly aimed at “Big Tobacco,” but instead whacks the little guy—family-run bodegas and convenience stores—for having the audacity to have tobacco products on our shelves along with the milk, bread, coffee, lottery, food, beverages and other products we carry for neighborhood residents.

They would raise the minimum price our stores must charge for cigarettes from $10.50 a pack to $13, establish minimum prices for other tobacco products (OTP), raise the biennial tobacco dealer license fee from $110 to $340, and force you to get a separate license to sell e-cigarettes at another $340. Pray tell, how much do the illegal street peddlers who control over half of the Big Apple’s cigarette marketplace pay in license fees?

Even worse, another of the bills would arbitrarily cut the number of licensed tobacco outlets in the city by attrition. Anyone buying an existing licensed shop would be automatically disqualified from getting a tobacco license—torpedoing the value of retail businesses that families have spent their lives building. Of course, bootleggers who sell 10 times as many cigarettes as a licensed store without bothering to get a license would be wholly unaffected.

The impetus for all this? Mayor deBlasio’s political need to respond to an article in the New York Times saying he’s been softer on tobacco control than his predecessor Mike Bloomberg.

ENGAGEMENT IS CRITICAL
The New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS) has partnered with retailers, distributors and manufacturers to identify and respond to these localized threats as they arise. But they’re so ubiquitous it’s hard to catch them all at an early enough stage to affect the outcome. Getting retailers engaged—educating policy-makers, appearing at public hearings, speaking with customers—is critical to defending our right to continue selling legal tobacco products to adult customers in a socially responsible manner.

Typically, we’re outnumbered, the political headwinds are strong, and few elected officials have the courage to say no to something that sounds on the surface to be rational despite facts to the contrary. But nobody’s going to stand up for you if you don’t stand up for yourself.

Since their cause is noble, the anti-tobacco activists pushing these local restrictions think nothing of trampling the rights of retailers. Case in point: We discovered that in Albany County, which implemented a local Tobacco 21 law last year, stores caught selling tobacco are not only being fined by the county for violating the New York State Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act as in the past, but fined an additional sum for violating the new county law by selling to someone under 21.

You see, the 17-year-old undercover purchaser they use is less than 18—and under 21. This is equivalent to a cop issuing you one speeding ticket for violating state traffic law and another for a violating county traffic law—for the same offense. It’s double-dipping. It’s unethical, if not downright illegal.

ULSTER BUSTER
Amid all these assaults on the category, a single daisy has popped up through the rubble that is New York’s tobacco regulatory environment. A law has been proposed in Ulster County that would actually outlaw possession of tobacco by minors—a policy long advocated by NYACS as a far more targeted and effective way to get teens to stop smoking. A public hearing is scheduled June 20.

The sponsor argues, correctly, that “merely prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors is not sufficient to discourage or prevent the use thereof.” And he points out that New York is one of only five states without a possession law. Who knows? Maybe this local initiative will spread like wildfire too.

Jim Calvin is the president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS), a private, not-for-profit trade association dedicated to unifying, serving and representing the convenience store industry of New York State.

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