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Tobacco temptation; UB study finds half of schools in Falls, Buffalo are near stores selling cigarettes

It may not come as a total surprise that some schools are within walking distance of stores where cigarettes and other tobacco products are sold.

After all, schools exist in the real world, and some are in urban or commercial settings.

But what may be surprising to learn -- as it was for a team led by University at Buffalo researchers -- is that fully half of the schools in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls school districts are located within 1,000 feet of tobacco vendors.

That means lots of Western New York children and teenagers come very close, every school day, to places where they can buy tobacco products that may harm their health, or where tobacco company advertising messages can reach them, members of the research team said.

"Young kids -- but also teens -- are likely to see these advertisements and be influenced by them," said Andrea Licht, a Buffalo resident and doctoral student in epidemiology at UB who was one of the lead researchers on the study.

The UB-led team, which included partners from the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, conducted a yearlong analysis of the proximity of tobacco-selling retailers to 104 public schools in Buffalo and 15 in Niagara Falls, the researchers said.

They found 350 retail businesses in the City of Buffalo selling tobacco products, and then compared the locations of those vendors with the schools, said Licht.

"The sheer number of outlets in general surprised me," said Licht, a North Tonawanda native who is studying social and preventive medicine at UB.

"It creates a social norm," she said. "Even if the child or teenager isn't walking past [the vendor], their friends might be going to it. Teens and kids are very impressionable about tobacco advertising. Even just seeing that red and white of a Marlboro ad could make an impression."

At the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition, director Anthony Billoni said the study was an important step forward in making Western New York a safer and healthier place for children, even those as young as grade-school age.

"We know that youth are very vulnerable to these tobacco advertisements," Billoni said. "One thing we know is that the uptick in smoking usually comes between the ages of 12 and 14. One of our major roles right now is to educate the public about the prominence of tobacco products in these places."

According to the UB-led research team:

*Half of the schools studied were near tobacco vendors -- sometimes with more than one such shop within 1,000 feet.

*Schools in heavily commercial neighborhoods were more likely to have tobacco-selling retail establishments near them. The school with the most such shops within 1,000 feet -- Elmwood Village Charter School in Buffalo -- had five, all located within a few streets of its Elmwood Avenue location.

*Schools that had one or more tobacco-selling retailers near them were not clustered in one location of the city, but were scattered throughout the city. In Buffalo, schools that had four such vendors within 1,000 feet included Leonardo DaVinci High School, Academy School No. 131 on Broadway and Public School No. 43 on Benzinger Street. Others in this group with multiple vendors nearby included Herman Badillo School and the Emerson School of Hospitality.

At the Elmwood Village Charter School, administrators said they knew about and were appreciative of the tobacco-vendor study.

"I think the study was well done," said John Sheffield, director and principal at the Elmwood Avenue school, which educates 200 children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

But, he cautioned, schools in urban zones need to be aware that such outlets will be around them as part of the commercial landscape.

"One of the issues we need to be aware of is, we did choose to locate our school in an area that is heavily commercial," he said.

Sheffield said he thinks such locations provide educators and parents with a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

"The kids are going to be exposed to some form of advertising no matter how vigilant parents and educators are," Sheffield said. "Clearly, the more education we can give children in school about the dangers of tobacco use, that's what's going to make a big difference. We make sure we have a comprehensive program here to make sure our children are well-educated about tobacco products."

During the same period that the UB-led researchers were conducting the local study, similar studies were being done in New York City and St. Louis, said Licht.

"We found pretty much the same results that they had," she said, of the other cities' research, which was published earlier this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Billoni said that the study lays an important foundation for future work on the part of local anti-smoking advocates for less access to tobacco products for the area's young people.

"We'd love to see more responsible tobacco retailing," Billoni said. "That's part of the consideration, downstream."

e-mail: getwell@buffnews.com

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