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Bloomberg wants NY stores to hide cigarettes

NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for legislation to make New York the first U.S. city to require stores to conceal tobacco products, a week after a court struck down his ban on the sale of large sugary beverages.

Bloomberg’s latest health initiative would mandate that tobacco products such as cigarettes be kept in cabinets, drawers, under the counter, behind a curtain or in any other concealed location. It wouldn’t pertain to advertising, leading a spokesman for the state’s convenience stores to question its logic and effectiveness.

The measure is scheduled to be introduced at the mayor’s request by Democratic City Council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, chairwoman of the Health Committee, on March 20, according to a statement. A companion bill would combat illegal cigarette smuggling. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said at a news briefing that she is “very, very open” to the changes.

“New York City has dramatically lowered our smoking rate, but even one new smoker is one too many,” Bloomberg, 71, said at a press briefing today at a Queens hospital, according to a statement. “Young people are targets of marketing, and the availability of cigarettes and this legislation will help prevent another generation from the ill health and shorter life expectancy that comes with smoking.”

Since taking office in 2002, Bloomberg, a Republican- turned-independent, has pushed public-health programs, both as a philanthropist and as mayor in control of a $1.5 billion-a-year health department. He’s banned artery-clogging trans-fat food additives and required restaurant chains to post the calorie content of menu items. Anti-smoking initiatives have been a constant theme, including higher tobacco taxes and bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, public parks and beaches.

The latest tobacco proposal is “absurd,” said Jim Calvin, president of the Albany-based New York Association of Convenience Stores, whose 1,600 members are scattered throughout the state.

“Retailers have a fundamental right to communicate with their customers about what they sell by displaying those products,” said Calvin. He questioned why the law would ban the display of tobacco products but not advertising, and said its passage could further push cigarette sales to the black market, depriving stores of sales and the city and state of tax revenue.

“I’m disputing the far-fetched assumption that because young people see a product in a store, the sight of it compels them to start smoking,” he said. “Many of our stores are licensed to sell beer. Does the sight of it encourage underage drinking? The sight of lottery tickets to gamble? The sale of condoms to engage in premarital sex?”

The city’s anti-smoking campaign has helped decrease the smoking rate in adults to 14.8 percent in 2011 from 21.5 percent in 2002, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has said. In December, Bloomberg announced that city residents’ life expectancy rose to a record high of 80.9 years for babies born in 2010, 2.2 years more than the national average. The death rate from heart disease fell by 27.1 percent from 2001, partly because of a 30 percent drop in the number of smokers, according to city officials.

Still, smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death among New Yorkers, killing 7,000 annually, and youth smoking rates have remained stuck at 8.5 percent since 2007, according to Farley.

One of Bloomberg’s most high-profile attempts to improve health through public policy was recently met with defeat. On March 11, New York Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling barred the sugary beverage proposal from becoming law, saying it had too many loopholes and violated the jurisdiction of the City Council. The city has appealed the decision.

The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. He is prevented by law from seeking a fourth four-year term.

With assistance from Henry Goldman at City Hall.

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