A study linking shop tobacco displays to increased smoking experimentation by young people reinforces the need to legislate the products out of sight, an anti-tobacco group says.

After the Government previously refused to ban retail displays, officials are now considering afresh whether to recommend the policy, one which tobacco control researchers say would be important in reducing New Zealand’s smoking rate.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found in California that exposure to tobacco displays and advertising at convenience, liquor and small grocery stores was a risk factor for young people taking up smoking.

New Zealand law does not permit advertising, but Smokefree Coalition director Prudence Stone said the Californian study was still relevant for this country because the “power walls” of tobacco displays in many shops were a form of advertising.

The study followed 1681 children aged 11 to 14 who, at the outset, had never smoked. They were asked subsequently if they had smoked and how often they visited the three kinds of shops.  After one year, the students who visited these stores at least twice a week were at least twice as likely to try smoking as infrequent visitors.

The findings corroborate those of a New Zealand-based study published last year which found that the risk of experimenting with smoking was higher for teenagers aged 14-15 who visited shops with retail tobacco displays weekly or more frequently.

The Stanford University study concluded: “A growing body of evidence suggests that stores that are saturated with cigarette advertising and product displays constitute a significant public health concern, particularly for youth.”

Health Minister Tony Ryall last year rejected the recommendation of Parliament’s health select committee to ban retail tobacco displays.

But he left the door ajar to reconsideration if new research indicated a ban would lead to “a significant reduction” in smoking.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia revived the proposal in March. The Health Ministry said it had analysed the 1000 submissions it received and was writing a report which Mrs Turia was expected to take to the Cabinet later this year.  Dr Stone said: “We believe the consultation process highlighted the fact that new evidence had come to light that strongly supports the need for a ban.

“We now know [displays] encourage youth to take up smoking. I have certainly forwarded that Pediatrics article to Tariana Turia’s office.”  Retailers’ groups and New Zealand’s biggest tobacco supplier, British American Tobacco, have opposed the proposed display ban.