by Meliah Schultzman, staff attorney, and Rio Holaday, policy analyst, of ChangeLab Solutions.
In 2013, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) surveyed more than 7,300 California retail stores, from small corner stores to big-box stores, with the purpose of analyzing the availability of tobacco, alcohol, and food products. This is the first and largest survey of its kind, and the resulting data are staggering:
• twenty-seven percent of the 7,300 stores surveyed that carry tobacco products are located within two blocks of a school.
• seventy-one percent of stores carry alcohol, while only 37 percent carry low fat or fat free milk.
• forty-two percent of stores sell fresh fruits or vegetables, compared to 58 percent of stores that offer sugary drinks near checkout areas.
As expected, the data reveal that harmful products and their accompanying advertising are more prevalent in low-income areas. Stores are aggressively marketing unhealthy products—like candy, sugar sweetened beverages, and tobacco products—to individuals in these neighborhoods, and to youth.
Results through Research
The release of this data marks the launch of the Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community campaign, a statewide collaborative effort by tobacco control, nutrition, and alcohol prevention agencies who all have an interest in equitable public health policies and a healthy retail environment. The campaign’s research is comprehensive; it includes state, regional, and county level data, which provide new insights on
• the density of stores selling tobacco and their proximity to schools;
• types of tobacco and alcohol products being sold;
• advertising and placement of such products in stores; and,
• the availability and promotion of healthy vs. unhealthy food options.
At ChangeLab Solutions, we have developed innovative strategies for making the retail environment a healthier place for all communities, and offer several model policies and factsheets that can address the problems uncovered by the survey results.
• More than a quarter of tobacco retailers are near schools. Further, the vast majority of stores sell single cigars for under $1, often cheaper than a candy bar. Our plug-in policies for local tobacco retailer licensing ordinances include several policy options that are relevant to the Campaign’s findings, including policies that prohibit sales of cheap individual cigars and that restrict tobacco retailers from being too close to schools.
• Sixty-one percent of convenience stores carry electronic cigarettes. California law prohibits the sale of these products to minors; beyond that, their sales are virtually unregulated. Our electronic cigarette resources provide an overview of the different policy options available to communities that want to address sales of these devices.
• Seventy-nine percent of stores sell flavored tobacco products. Our model ordinance restricting sales of flavored tobacco products can help cities and counties get these products off the shelves.
Healthy Food Retail
• Stores that sell alcohol in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to display alcohol advertising near candy and toys than stores in non-low-income areas. Our factsheet, Incentives for Change, provides an overview of ways to reward small food retailers who wish to make healthy changes to their business model.
• Only 42 percent of stores offer fresh fruits or vegetables, and only 33 percent of stores selling fresh produce offer good variety and good quality produce. Sourcing and marketing fresh produce while maintaining affordable prices is a challenge for smaller stores. The Providing Fresh Produce in Small Food Stores factsheet provides a range of strategies for overcoming this challenge.
• According to the survey results, alcohol is more widely available than milk or fresh produce. Our factsheet on selling area explains how to measure the total selling area of a store, including both floor area and shelf space, as well as calculate the total percentage of selling area devoted to a particular type of product like produce or staple foods. This factsheet is especially useful for communities who use selling area as a requirement for a healthy corner store certification program or business licensing policy.
The Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community campaign goal is to improve the health of Californians through changes to the retail environment. ChangeLab Solutions supports this goal, not only in our home state, but also nationally; we believe the data presented here serve as a marker for the entire nation. In California, we’re taking the survey’s disheartening results and using them as fuel to make change; we’re choosing good health over chronic disease. We urge you to use these data as an inspiration for tackling these issues in your community, because our local stores help shape our neighborhoods’ health, economic vitality, quality, and safety.
Meliah Schultzman is a staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions specializing in tobacco control and healthy housing. She provides technical assistance and training to local government agencies, tobacco control programs, and community-based organizations regarding laws regulating tobacco sales and secondhand smoke exposure. She previously was a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, where she engaged in legal and policy advocacy on a variety of issues affecting low-income families.
Rio Holaday is a policy analyst at ChangeLab Solutions, focusing on food access and childhood obesity. Prior to joining ChangeLab Solutions, she co-founded a social enterprise that made and sold healthy snacks in schools and corner stores, ran a city-funded healthy cart, and helped establish a Healthy Carts Association in Philadelphia. Rio has also conducted research on food buying behavior in food deserts. Before entering the food access world, she did Fulbright research on immigrants in South Africa and worked with resettled refugees in Vermont.