That’s according to a new academic study that charted tobacco retailers in 30 major U.S. cities. It finds they’re concentrated in low-income areas in Denver and nationally. Public health advocates say that gives minors all too easy access to a variety of tobacco products.
Stanford University researcher Lisa Henriksen says two-thirds of city residents live within a half-mile of a store that sells tobacco.
“In Denver, there are nearly two times as many tobacco retailers in the lowest income neighborhoods than in the highest income neighborhoods and that’s quite concerning,” said Henriksen, a senior research scientist at the Stanford School of Medicine and lead researcher on the study.
The research was funded by the National Cancer Institute and conducted by the Advancing Science and Practice in the Retail Environment (ASPiRE) Center, a collaboration that investigates how tobacco retailer density and innovative retail tobacco interventions impact people and communities.
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the group. It results in over 480,000 deaths and $170 billion in health care expenses each year.
The study found stores selling tobacco were prevalent in Denver, exceeding prominent franchise chains, with 23 times more tobacco retailers than McDonald’s locations in Denver and 8 times more than Starbucks.
Representatives for the tobacco retail industry said the findings don’t accurately portray the risks to kids. They characterized the findings as unsurprising, pointing out that tobacco retailers include everything from convenience stores and gas stations to grocery stores, corner markets and liquor stores.
And they said a new federal law, enacted at the end of 2019, prohibits the sale of tobacco to anyone under 21, which essentially ends easy access to tobacco for underage minors.
“Despite raising the age of purchase to 21 and now having statewide and local licensing to hold bad actors accountable, Colorado’s responsible business owners are being targeted again,” said Grier Bailey, the executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, which represents most of the state’s roughly 2,000 convenience stores. “Where you find more people, you are going to find more commerce, including more convenience stores, liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and grocery stores. It’s strange they needed a study to prove something that intelligent citizens in Colorado naturally understand.”
Retailers who sell tobacco also note many stores in low-income neighborhoods are the only source of groceries, and that tobacco products are an important part of their business model.