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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Why California retailers stop selling tobacco products, and what their customers and employees think about it when they do: case studies

Patricia A McDaniel* and Ruth E Malone

Author Affiliations

Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Nursing, University of California, San Francisco, 3333 California Street, Suite 455, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:848  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-848

Published: 8 November 2011

Abstract

Background

In California, some 40, 000 retailers sell tobacco products. Tobacco's ubiquitousness in retail settings normalizes use and cues smoking urges among former smokers and those attempting cessation. Thus, limiting the number of retailers is regarded as key to ending the tobacco epidemic. In the past decade, independent pharmacies and local grocery chains in California and elsewhere have voluntarily abandoned tobacco sales. No previous studies have examined the reasons for this emerging phenomenon. We sought to learn what motivated retailers to discontinue tobacco sales and what employees and customers thought about their decision.

Methods

We conducted case studies of seven California retailers (three grocery stores, four pharmacies) that had voluntarily ceased tobacco sales within the past 7 years. We interviewed owners, managers, and employees, conducted consumer focus groups, unobtrusively observed businesses and the surrounding environment, and examined any media coverage of each retailer's decision. We analyzed data using qualitative content analysis.

Results

For independent pharmacies, the only reason given for the decision to end tobacco sales was that tobacco caused disease and death. Grocers listed health among several factors, including regulatory pressures and wanting to be seen as "making a difference." Media coverage of stores' new policies was limited, and only three retailers alerted customers. Management reported few or no customer complaints and supportive or indifferent employees. Pharmacy employees were pleased to no longer be selling a deadly product. Grocery store management saw the decision to end tobacco sales as enhancing the stores' image and consistent with their inventory of healthy foods. Focus group participants (smokers and nonsmokers) were largely unaware that retailers had stopped selling tobacco; however, almost all supported the decision, viewing it as promoting public health. Many said knowing this made them more likely to shop at the store. Most thought that advertising the store's policy was essential to generate good public relations and tobacco norm changes.

Conclusions

Voluntary retailer abandonment of tobacco sales both reflects and extends social norm changes that have problematized tobacco in California. Our findings suggest that such voluntary initiatives by retailers are welcomed by consumers and should be publicized, enhancing public health efforts.