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Communities should be allowed to regulate signage

Buffalo and communities across the country are considering the adoption of policies to require the placement of pictorial point-of-sale signage that would inform consumers where to get free help to stop smoking and to educate all those who enter stores about the dangers of tobacco.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health attempted to implement this common-sense measure, but a federal judge ruled that the signs must come down under a provision of federal law that apparently has been interpreted as saying only Congress has the authority to educate consumers about the health risks of tobacco.

A federal law, enacted in 1965, prohibited localities from issuing health warnings on cigarette packs and was amended in 1969 to include advertising. The intent was to ensure a common set of health warnings on packs sold and advertising. No one is suggesting that this provision of the federal law be changed.

However, extending this prohibition to include signs placed in stores licensed to sell tobacco products is well beyond the scope of the original federal law, and belies common sense. Local communities certainly should have the right to mandate educational signage at the point of sale.

New York State already requires that stores selling tobacco products post signs that sales to minors are not allowed. Point-of-sale signage does not interfere with cigarette brand marketing campaigns, so it is difficult to understand what the big fuss is all about, except one can imagine that cigarette manufacturers would prefer that the public not be reminded about how bad cigarettes are. It would seem logical to me that communities ought to have a say about the standards for selling tobacco products in stores that they are responsible for regulating.

The New York City ruling hopefully will be appealed and common sense will eventually prevail. In the meantime, cigarette makers have vowed to block and delay any and all efforts to rein in their irresponsible marketing practices.

In these fiscally challenging times, local governments are steering away from tobacco control, not because they think it is the right thing to do, but because they fear the costs of a long, protracted legal battle with the likes of Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds. We hope that our elected officials will not bow to such threats, since lives are truly in the balance.

Those in the businesses of selling tobacco products have a choice. For those businesses that freely choose to sell tobacco products, there should come with this a responsibility to adhere to local rules about the place and matter in which the products are sold. This includes the ability for local communities like Buffalo, and not Congress, to set the standards for educational signage about tobacco products sold in local retail outlets.

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K. Michael Cummings, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

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