TORONTO — At first glance, it looks like cigarettes have disappeared from Canadian stores.
There are no advertisements or signs for cigarettes in retail outlets in most of the nation’s provinces. And the behind-the-counter racks of various cigarette brands, so familiar in the United States, are nowhere to be seen.
While cigarettes are still sold, they have largely disappeared from view — an effort by the nation’s provincial governments to discourage smoking among young people and help adults quit.
“The principle is indeed out of sight, out of mind,” said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.
Canada’s move to hide cigarettes at their point of sale is being watched closely by U.S. anti-tobacco advocates as a potential weapon in the just-starting federal regulation of tobacco products.
“In convenience stores in the United States, we are bombarded with tobacco branding images,” said Paul Billings, vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association in Washington. “These measures to reduce the attractiveness and reduce the availability of tobacco products do have a positive impact on reducing tobacco use.”
The new anti-smoking law passed by the U.S. Congress this year gives the federal Food and Drug Administration the authority to minimize tobacco-marketing tools that may affect consumption of the product, particularly by youths, said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“Much of the rest of the world is ahead of us in taking steps to minimize exposure to tobacco marketing,” he said. “All of the issues concerning marketing and displays in convenience stores are appropriate for FDA’s consideration.”
Concealing cigarettes ends a subtle but powerful form of advertising, said Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco.
“If you have this product next to the candy, the gum, pop and newspapers in every store on every corner in every city and town in the province, young people wonder how can it be harmful — because it’s everywhere,” Perley said. “Removing that message in large part is extremely important.”
The “out-of-sight” laws are Canada’s latest measure in the battle against smoking, a fight that has included bans on smoking in public places and graphic warnings — with color pictures of diseased hearts and lungs — on cigarette packs.
In May 2008 Ontario and Quebec required stores to put tobacco products out of sight, either in drawers or behind wall coverings that conceal cigarettes, which has prompted many convenience stores to install cabinets with solid doors.
The other provinces and territories either already had similar bans or have since put restrictions in place — most recently this year in New Brunswick and Yukon. The last province to act is Newfoundland, whose ban takes effect Jan. 1.
Perley said that despite anti-smoking campaigns aimed at young people, the presence of a wall of cigarettes behind a convenience store cashier was a powerful counter-message from the tobacco industry. He said researchers found that many children who did not smoke and had no interest in it could name brands and colors.
“This is an audience that’s susceptible, that is aware, that is exposed to it in that (convenience store) setting frequently, multiple times a week,” Perley said. “And whether they smoke or not, the groundwork is laid when the time for possible experimentation comes along.”
Adults trying to quit smoking also found that seeing cigarette packs was a strong trigger either to keep smoking or restart the habit, he said.
The Canadian provinces’ approach is common sense, Perley said. If you don’t want people to smoke, “don’t shove the product in their faces,” he said. “Stop sending this message that this product is legitimate and normal, that it’s just like any other consumer product. It’s not.”
Canada’s federal health agency, Health Canada, has not evaluated how well the display bans are working.
“As the decision on whether or not to ban tobacco retail displays is made by the provinces, Health Canada is not in a position to comment on their effectiveness,” Health Canada spokeswoman Christelle Legault said in an e-mail.
Health Canada’s annual Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey shows that the nation’s smoking rate for the most at-risk group, those 15 to 24 years old, has dropped from 29 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2008.
Perley said it is difficult to pinpoint the impact of any one anti-smoking measure, but studies will be done on the effectiveness of the retail display bans.
Canada’s largest cigarette maker, Imperial Tobacco Canada, has seen no drop in sales since the display bans, according to spokesman Eric Gagnon.
“It’s not preventing individuals from smoking,” he said. “If you are a smoker, you know the products are there.”
But for Canada’s convenience stores, which sell 86 percent of cigarettes in the country (drug stores and food stores are prohibited from selling tobacco products), the display ban has proved devastating.
Convenience stores used to be paid by the tobacco companies for placing their products in prominent places and for introducing new brands to customers, and that money is now gone, said Dave Bryans, president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association.
In Ontario alone, almost 9 percent of the province’s convenience stores (765 outlets) closed last year because of the retail display ban, he said.
“We predict that 30 percent of all small stores will be gone in three years,” Bryans said.
Health advocates, he said, ignored convenience stores’ concerns that the cost of complying with the ban were high and that sales clerks face additional dangers by having to turn their backs to customers to search for unfamiliar brands.
“It hasn’t worked, it doesn’t work, and it won’t work” in cutting the smoking rate, Bryans said of the display bans.
Cunningham noted that the bans were new last year to the most populous parts of Canada and added that it will take time to evaluate them. But he said many factors, including the display bans, can influence smoking rates. Those rates are declining in Canada, “and we find that to be very positive,” he said.
Canada is among a handful of countries restricting point-of-sale displays of cigarettes. Iceland imposed a ban in 2001 and Thailand did so in 2005. Ireland enacted a ban in July, and the United Kingdom is considering one.
The World Health Organization supports a display ban, as does the international tobacco control treaty signed by nations that include Canada and the United States (though the U.S. Congress has not yet been sent the treaty for approval).
“We’re going to see more countries do this,” Cunningham predicted. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Reporter James R. Carroll can be reached at (202) 906-8141.