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For some, out-of-sight cigarettes really might be out of mind

Mark Lennihan / AP

Harry Patel, an employee of Blondie's Deli and Grocery, talks on the phone while waiting for customers in New York on Monday. A new anti-smoking proposal would make New York the first city in the nation to keep tobacco products out of sight in retail stores. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the goal is to reduce the youth smoking rate.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised eyebrows Monday, proposing a new law – the first of its kind in the nation – that would require cigarettes and other tobacco products be hidden from view of shoppers.

“We know that out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind,” Bloomberg said during a news conference at Queens Hospital Center. “But in many cases it can and we think this measure will help reduce impulse purchases and if it does, it will literally save lives.”

Experts say there is evidence that the mere sight of a pack of cigarettes really can make smokers want to buy them.

“Nicotine is the most addictive drug there is and cigarettes are both biologically and psychologically addictive,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a NYC psychiatrist, author and regular TODAY contributor. “Seeing cigarettes is a trigger. ‘There it is.’ It very well may make you want it more.”

Numerous studies back this up. A 2008 study published in the journal Addiction surveyed nearly 3,000 adults (including smokers, ex-smokers and those currently trying to quit) and found more than 25 percent of smokers bought cigarettes after seeing a cash register display -- even though they weren’t shopping for smokes. And one in five smokers trying to quit said they avoided the stores where they usually bought cigarettes because they knew if they went in, they’d buy them.

The allure is so strong even 31 percent of smokers readily admitted that removing cigarettes from store displays would make it much easier to quit.

“Point of purchase cigarette displays act as cues to smoke, even among those not explicitly intending to buy cigarettes and those trying to avoid smoking,” wrote psychologist and lead author Melanie Wakefield, director of the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer in Victoria, Australia. “Effective POP marketing restrictions should encompass cigarette displays.”

Other studies have shown store cigarette promotions are strongly correlated with rates of youths taking up smoking as well as increased tobacco sales in the stores. A 2009 study in the journal Tobacco Control found that one of five shoppers who bought smokes at retail outlets with cigarettes on display at the check-out counter made an impulse buy.

“Visual triggers are a huge part of addiction,” says Joe Guppy, Seattle psychotherapist and addiction specialist. “That’s why when people are in recovery, they try to avoid visual triggers. I once had a client mention a magazine ad he saw once when he was trying to quit smoking. It showed a man taking that first drag off a cigarette, looking right into the camera. It probably took thousands of shots to capture that exact moment. But when it hit his brain, it made him go, ‘Oh, I want that so bad.’”

Adds Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “Impulse buying can occur when you’re exposed to a number of different product displays but particularly if you have nicotine addiction.”

Guppy hails Bloomberg’s proposal, adding that “out of sight, out of mind” can be helpful with all kinds of addictions – from internet porn to sweets.

“I have a thing with chocolate,” he says. “If I want to moderate my intake of brownies, I’ll put them on top of the refrigerator instead of on the counter. That way, I’m not constantly triggered.”

Saltz warns that when it comes to something as addictive as nicotine, though, out of sight, out of mind may not always work.

“It’s not that simple because nicotine is addictive you’re going to seek it anyway if you’re already addicted,” she says. “But for people who may be trying to stay away and may not particularly be shopping for them, it would be better if it’s not in their face.”