4 Strategies Big Tobacco Uses to Target Children and Teens at the Point-of-Sale

Between glamorizing smoking in pop culture, getting celebrity endorsements, and using cartoon characters in advertising and packaging, it’s clear that Big Tobacco markets its products toward youth. After all, if you can get a person hooked on tobacco in their youth, you likely have a customer for life.

Big Tobacco has been called out in the past in various lawsuits for its cigarette ads that targeted children, but they continue using deceptive strategies to attract young people today. Many of these strategies are seen at point-of-sale locations or places where people can purchase cigarettes such as gas stations and grocery stores.

Studies show that children and youth who have regular exposure to tobacco advertising and promotion at the point of sale are more likely to start smoking, so it’s important to be aware of what these strategies are.[1] Here are 4 ways Big Tobacco continues to target children and teens at the point of sale.

1. Displaying Cigarettes and Vapes Near Sweets, Snacks, and Sugary Drinks

Gas stations, grocery stores, and mom-and-pop shops alike are there to make money, so they do what they can to encourage you to buy as many products as possible before you leave. One of the most effective ways to do this is to place appealing or popular items at the checkout counter so you can grab-and-go.

Not only are cigarettes displayed directly behind the cashier, making them impossible to miss, but they are also often displayed near sweets, snacks, sugary drinks, and other consumable products that are popular among children and youth. Disposable vapes and vape juices are also regularly displayed at the checkout counter alongside candy, chips, and other quick grabs.

Children may quickly make the association between sweets, snacks, sugary drinks, and tobacco products because they are always displayed together, so they may begin to minimize the harms of tobacco use and become tempted to try smoking.

2. Placing Advertisements at Children’s Eye Levels

When cigarettes and vaping products are displayed alongside candy and sweets, they are also displayed at eye level for children. Some stores, such as Walmart (the largest tobacco retailer in the United States), often have large cigarette displays that sit right on the ground, and children can walk right up to them. According to No-Smoke.org, this tactic is no accident.[2]

Even in settings where tobacco products are not displayed at eye level, advertisements often are. This is dangerous because tobacco advertising can encourage children to begin thinking about smoking and making unhealthy decisions at an early age.

A study out of San Francisco found that 38% of stores had tobacco advertisements displayed less than three feet from the ground and 34% had ads located right next to candy.[3] These numbers are likely higher in low-income neighborhoods and minority communities.

3. Selling and Promoting Sweet or Fruity Flavored Cigarettes and Vape Juice

Flavored tobacco products fuel youth tobacco use and up to 85% of youth e-cigarette users use flavored tobacco products.[4] Big Tobacco knows that most youths aren’t going to naturally like the taste of a cigarette, but they will be attracted to sweet and fruity flavors. That’s why the industry pushes flavored cigarettes and vaping products.

If you walk into any store that sells tobacco products, you will find endless flavors ranging from ones inspired by candy such as Swedish Fish and flavors inspired by popular desserts like Snickerdoodle Cookies to fruity cocktail mixes like Peach Raspberry Lemonade or Strawberry Watermelon. When it comes to Big Tobacco and flavors, the options are endless–and all of them appeal to youth.

4. Selling Single Sticks of Cigarettes and Disposable Vapes

Single cigarette sticks, also known as “loosies,” are single packaged cigarettes that consumers can purchase without having to purchase an entire pack. Curious youth and teens may be scared to buy a whole pack of cigarettes, but they may be more tempted to purchase a single stick, instead. They may do so without the intention of buying a pack, but experimenting with any substance is a slippery slope, and one cigarette can easily turn into many, many more.

The same idea applies to disposable vapes. Disposable vaping sticks, which are often discrete and easier to hide than real cigarettes, are also appealing to youth. Rather than committing to an entire vaping device that must be cleaned, refilled, and recharged, they can easily purchase a disposable vape and throw it away when they are done with it.

Studies show that the high availability of single cigarettes not only promotes smoking but also undermines attempts to quit or cut down on smoking. The lower up-front cost is also more attractive to young people.[5]

What Can You Do?

Parents of children and teens have legitimate reasons to be concerned about the ways in which Big Tobacco may be targeting their kids at points of sale. The sale of tobacco products in the US is generally regulated on a state-by-state basis, although there are some exceptions. As a result, the best way to change these advertising methods is to get involved with your local government and raise the issue with the community. Laws regarding how and where Big Tobacco can advertise can change the impacts on youth.

More importantly, it is crucial to talk to your kids about the dangers of smoking and using tobacco products. Education is the key to prevention, so keep an open, honest conversation going with your child. The more involved you are in their decision about smoking, the less likely they are to begin using tobacco products.


  1. https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2022/05/30/tobaccocontrol-2021-057095
  2. https://no-smoke.org/walmart-cigarette-cabinets-at-kid-height/
  3. https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Eye-Level-Tobacco-Ads-Are-a-Low-Blow-to-Children-2921744.php
  4. https://www.tobaccofreekids.org/what-we-do/industry-watch/e-cigarettes
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4723674/

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