MONDAY, Nov. 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- New research suggests that teens who spend a lot of time hanging around convenience stores are more likely to smoke, even if they're not the type of kids considered to be delinquents.
While the findings don't point to anything other than a possible link between the stores and smoking, they're raising a red flag among researchers who fear the glut of tobacco advertising in convenience stores is having a major impact on young customers.
"It's the only unregulated frontier for this kind of marketing," explained study co-author Lisa Henriksen, a senior research scientist at Stanford University's Prevention Research Center.
In the spring of 2003, Henriksen and her colleagues surveyed 2,125 middle-school students in the Northern California city of Tracy. They asked the children about their smoking habits and their visits to small grocery, convenience and liquor stores.
The findings appear in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
About a quarter of the students visited the stores at least once a day; about two-thirds visited at least once a week.
The researchers found that those who were exposed to tobacco marketing in the stores at least once a week were more likely to smoke.
The researchers then tinkered with the numbers to test the theory that "kids who are up to no good hang out at stores," Henriksen said. They tried to remove the influence of factors such as race, gender, age, exposure to other tobacco advertising and "propensity for risk-taking," a rough measurement of a kid's tolerance for getting into hot water. Even so, the study still found that kids who visited the stores regularly were 50 percent more likely to smoke.
"That was a compelling result," Henriksen said, although she cautioned that the study doesn't prove that visits to the stores make kids smoke; it only shows a link between the two activities.
According to the study, the tobacco industry spends more on in-store advertising than all other forms of advertising combined -- $9.5 billion vs. $1.7 billion in 2001. Tobacco companies cannot advertise on television or radio, and a 1998 settlement with the federal government banned billboard advertising.
The study "shows that the tobacco industry is still able to use the loopholes in the settlement to very effectively market to kids," said Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research at the University of California, San Francisco.
Advertising through store displays "may be less efficient for them, but they have enough money and cigarettes are profitable enough that they're able to use a somewhat less-efficient advertising medium," he said. "The cigarette companies wouldn't be spending billions of dollars doing this if it didn't work. They're not fools."
What's next? According to Henriksen, researchers need to get a better handle on the influence of advertisements in convenience stores. "If our purpose is to argue for effective policies that prevent smoking, we need to point people's attention to stores as an area that needs attention," she said.
Learn more about preventing teen smoking from the American Cancer Society.