Johannesburg, December 5: Teenagers may be less likely to try to buy cigarettes at convenience stories if they aren't sold in plain sight behind the counter, a new study conducted using a virtual reality game has suggested.
According to the study's lead author, requiring stores to hide tobacco product displays is one option some states are considering to curb teen smoking after the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 was passed.
"We know the retail environment is a very important place for tobacco companies to advertise and market their products," News24 quoted Dr Annice Kim, from the independent research institute RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, as saying
"They're prominently displayed at the point of sale, and it exposes all customers, including kids," Kim said.
Kim's team wanted to test the effects of covering up such cigarette displays on teen shopping and opinion, but they couldn't conduct a real-world experiment because as of yet, no states have banned the displays so they designed a virtual reality game and sent more than 1 200 youths, ages 13 to 17 into a simulated online convenience store.
Researchers asked the participants to select four items in the store: a snack from the aisles, a drink from the coolers and two products of their choice from the checkout counter.
In some scenarios, the cabinet behind the counter prominently displayed cigarettes, while other teens saw the cabinet closed and the display covered up.
Any teens that tried to ask the cashier for cigarettes were denied because of age - but what the researchers were interested in was how many asked.
Depending on other changes they made to the virtual convenience stores, the researchers found that 16-24 percent of teens tried to buy tobacco when the display was open, compared to 9-11 percent when it was closed.
In a post-virtual shopping survey, whether cigarettes were openly displayed wasn't clearly tied to teens' perceptions of how easy it would be to buy tobacco products if a similar store existed in their neighbourhood.
However, 32 percent said they were aware cigarettes were available for sale when the display case was closed in their virtual store, compared to 85 percent of those who had the open version.
"Policies that require retailers to store tobacco products out of view could have a positive public health impact," Kim added.
The study has been published in Pediatrics. (ANI)