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Store Puts Cigarette Ads On Own Sign

May 6, 1999

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Tobacco companies agreed to quit putting the Marlboro man and other cigarette advertising on billboards last month as part of a settlement with the states, but that isn’t stopping a convenience store chain from promoting Marlboros on its own highway signs.

A bright red pack of Marlboros being sold for ``$2.19 for limited time only″ is prominently featured on Wawa Food Markets billboards on I-76 and other major expressways.

As a retailer, the five-state chain said it is not affected by the tobacco settlement between the cigarette makers and the states.

But a leading anti-smoking advocate said the billboards run counter to the spirit of the agreement that called on tobacco companies to stop targeting youths with advertising images like the Marlboro man and Joe Camel.

``It’s not only any cigarette, but the brand of cigarette that is by far used the most by teen-agers. And it is advertising low prices, which would be particularly attractive to kids, who have the least disposable income,″ said Jeff Barg of Wayne, a medical newsletter publisher who heads the anti-smoking group Tobacco Free Education and Action Coalition for Health.

State Attorney General Mike Fisher is eying the Wawa billboards and considering what limitations the tobacco settlement imposes on retailers, spokesman Sean Connolly said.

``This is an issue that attorneys general in other states are dealing with, also. In Pennsylvania, Wawa is the only retailer we know of. We’ve had reports of others in other states,″ Connolly said.

Philip Morris, which makes Marlboros, is aware of the Wawa billboards and told the chain that it was ``committed to the letter and spirit of the settlement agreement we signed,″ said spokesman Brendan McCormick.

``We certainly had nothing to do with having these boards placed, and we would not encourage or condone anyone taking action that we could not take on our own,″ he said.

But McCormick said Philip Morris cannot compel Wawa to take the boards down. He said Philip Morris asked the chain’s owners ``to carefully consider their position″ on advertising cigarettes and ``to consider the concerns raised by the attorney general’s office.″

Tobacco companies agreed that cigarette billboards would come down by April 23 under their $206 billion settlement with 46 states over smoking-related health costs.

But Wawa, a privately-held chain of nearly 500 stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, said that as a retailer, it does not consider itself a participant in the tobacco settlement.

The company, based in Middletown Township, 15 miles west of Philadelphia, issued a statement saying it intends to continue advertising low-priced cigarettes.

``Wawa regularly advertises on billboards a variety of products, including hoagies, coffee, and ATMs,″ the company said, adding that the cigarette ads are ``general in nature ... not thematic or image-based advertisements.″

The ads include the Surgeon General’s warning and a commitment to prohibit sales to minors, said the statement.

Wawa spokeswoman Mandy Lain said they have gotten no monetary compensation from tobacco companies for the billboard advertisements.

``It is an example of one of the loopholes. That’s why I’m attacking the agreement. It was basically created to do as little as possible,″ said Dr. Robert Sklaroff, a Philadelphia cancer specialist who has an appeal pending in Commonwealth Court challenging Pennsylvania’s participation in the settlement.

Other anti-smoking advocates disputed the argument that retailers could disregard the agreement.

``Those billboards should have been down two weeks ago and they are in violation of the settlement,″ said William T. Godshall of Pittsburgh, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania.

Connolly said Fisher discusses such issues in a weekly conference call as a member of a billboard enforcement committee of attorneys general from several of the tobacco-settlement states. ``It is distressing that some retailers may look at the settlement as an opportunity to fill an advertising void,″ said Connolly.

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