BOSTON -- A recent study conducted by independent research institute RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C., alleges that teens are nearly twice as likely to try and buy cigarettes when they are sold in plain sight; however, because the study was conducted in "virtual convenience stores" (see below), many believe the results do not truly reflect real-world behavior.
"The computer simulation the study used does not relate to any real-life scenario because in real life, youth who are interested in smoking will go into a store with the intent to purchase cigarettes," Boston University Department of Community Health Science professor Dr. Michael Siegel told Tobacco E-News. "I don't think there are too many situations where a teen is hanging out in a store sees a display, and suddenly decides to try cigarettes."
According to the study's author Annice Kim, the goal was to test the effects covering up traditional cigarette displays has on teen shopping and opinion--a virtual environment had to be used because currently no states have banned tobacco displays.
Kim's team sent more than 1,200 teens into a simulated online c-store, asking them to select four items in to purchase: a snack, a drink and two products of their choice from the checkout counter. Some of the simulations displayed tobacco products behind the counter, others had all tobacco product displays hidden.
"We found that kids who shopped in the enclosed [hidden] display version of the store were less likely to try purchasing cigarettes than kids in the open-display version of the store," Kim told US News & World Report, citing that 16% to 24% of study participants tried to buy tobacco when the display was open, as opposed to 9% to 11% when it was hidden. Additionally, only 32% of the participants were aware of the availability of cigarettes when the simulation hid tobacco displays, compared to an 85% awareness when tobacco products were readily displayed.
"These results suggest that policies that require retailers to store tobacco products out of view could have a positive public health impact by discouraging kids from purchasing cigarettes," Kim said.
Siegel agreed with the concept that displays have an effect on both teens and adults: "Tobacco displays are part of overall tobacco advertising. ... Such exposure could contribute towards influencing youth attitudes towards the product."
It is the manner in which the study was conducted that is problematic to Siegel and others: a virtual environment is not the same as the real world, thus nullifying any results the study claims to have found.
"The study demonstrated that the displays get kids to think about cigarettes, but it doesn't demonstrate that displays will have any effect on purchase in real-life situations," he said.