Tobacco Retail Density Policies: Impacts and Unforeseen Effects

April 15, 2024

New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have recently enacted pioneering initiatives to cap the number of tobacco retail licenses permitted in city districts, which is expected to drastically reduce tobacco access and exposure. Daniel Giovenco, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences, wondered,  as the number of tobacco retailers decreases over time, would there be any corresponding changes in the sales and marketing practices in stores that maintain their licenses? To answer these questions, Giovenco and his research team are conducting annual retailer assessments in a random sample of tobacco retailers in each city over a five-year period. In 2023, they completed the first wave of data collection, visiting a sample of nearly 1,700 retailers.

Findings from this research could shed light on the potential behavioral impacts of the policies and help identify any unintended consequences. For example, if results show that prices of tobacco products increase more in neighborhoods with greater density reduction—given reduced competition in the marketplace—this might strengthen the effects of the policy in terms of reducing tobacco use. Alternatively, if the research team find that many stores begin to sell a wider variety of tobacco products to meet consumer demand, this might increase exposure and access in certain neighborhoods, including among young people.

Giovenco and members of his team celebrating the completion of a project that collected data from nearly 1,700 tobacco retailers in New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

A higher density of tobacco retailers in communities is associated with a range of tobacco use behaviors, including increased initiation and lower rates of cessation. Moreover, tobacco retailers are known to cluster in areas with greater social or economic disadvantage. Retail density policies hold promise as a way to intervene on a key structural- and environmental-level determinant of tobacco use disparities, but rigorous, real-world evaluations are necessary to demonstrate that they are in fact effective and equitable.

The results of our study will build the evidence base necessary to inform policy implementation in these cities and in other settings considering similar initiatives, notes Giovenco.

The team is currently in the process of analyzing data from the first wave of data collection. They are eager to draft a series of manuscripts on some of these initial findings and disseminate the results to the scientific and public health community over the next few months. They are also gearing up for their second wave of data collection, which will occur this summer.