Last month, in a National Advisory Group (NAG) webinar titled “The Future of Tobacco: Reshaping the back bar amidst legislative threats and PMTA,” Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, shared key advocacy goals and considerations for convenience store retailers.
“We have to protect — to the degree that we can — our core industry product categories that drive inside sales,” Bailey said. “As most operators know, traditionally, the tobacco and the nicotine category can be anywhere between 25% up to 45% — depending on the types of communities that you’re in — of that inside sales product category.”
Bailey shared how c-store operators can become more engaged in “the most responsible and productive way possible” when it comes to advocacy and government relations.
He noted a lot of retailers look at advocacy as a one-off event — something to do when an issue comes up that might impact your business. While ongoing government relations can seem superfluous, “I can tell you definitively that government relations and operators engaging in political advocacy can have as much or a greater impact than almost anything else that you do on your bottom lines,” he said.
Control the Conversation
With the rise of vaping, the need for government advocacy has grown. Vaping has a lot of benefits compared to cigarettes. “But what’s also a very definitive fact and something every tobacco or nicotine policy discussion has to start with is that kids are more attracted to vaping products than to traditional products,” he said. “Any step forward that reduces access to kids or the kids’ use of vaping products is something that has a very good chance of passing at whatever level of government.”
C-store operators have a chance to turn the conversation. “It is much better to be proactive in this space than it is reactive because what the tobacco control people are going to propose is going to be more than detrimental to your businesses,” Bailey said. “Coming to the table initially, especially in progressive environments, buys you credit with the people who see you then as somebody who’s willing to help solve problems.”
He offered a strategy: “If you have to accept the tax increase or licensing, make sure the money is going to something that makes further regulation harder.”
For example, if the tax increase on tobacco is going to fund pre-K, then future legislation could hurt that funding.
Compliance Is Key
Retailers must also acknowledge existing issues. “If your community has a Center for Tobacco Products, Food and Drug Administration-compliance violation rate of anything more than 10%, you have a problem, OK?”
Retailers must have a good compliance record to be effective in the tobacco control space.
“The best, most clever, most highly paid people and government affairs advocates in the country can’t do anything for you unless you and your competitors and whatever environment you’re operating in are compliant,” Bailey said.
The most effective people at defending a c-store’s compliance record are the people charged with enforcement.
“In our experience … state tobacco enforcement folks would come to the committee … and when the actual cop guys say, ‘Hey, based on all our records, this is a very compliant industry,’ that is more effective … than any amount of retailers saying, ‘I’ve never sold to kids.’”
Begin the conversation by recognizing legitimate policy problems, starting with the increase in kids using vaping products, and then focus on the solutions that the c-store industry brings, Bailey recommended.
Understand the overriding policy goal a municipality is looking to achieve — if it’s a small licensing fee, it could be in your best interest to support it to avoid more punitive legislation.
“You should walk into any office with your hands wide open and saying, ‘What problem are you trying to solve and how can I help?’”
You won’t always be able to help, and you won’t always agree, Bailey acknowledged. “But if you can recognize the problem, not only will that door be open for potential changes to whatever legislation they’re going to propose, but they’ll actually provide you a better opportunity to propose legislation and proactively try to direct the conversation or direct an agenda item to actually try to fix it.”