It's a common crime. Fully a third of all shoplifted items in supermarkets are cigarettes. Yet in all but five states, they remain easily accessible usually up front in open, single-pack displays, where customers can help themselves. CBS News Correspondent Maggie Cooper reports for Eye on America.
In a surveillance tape from an Arizona convenience store, a teenager is shown clearing out an entire rack of cigarettes -- pack by pack -- while the clerk is distracted.
"It's actually pretty easy for them to get it," says Bonnie Lightfoot, who runs convenience stores in Grand Junction, Colo. She says cigarettes, often placed near candy and gum, are a temptation to kids.
"I happen to have a store that [has] two high schools, a junior high and an elementary in close vicinity to it, and we were experiencing some pretty severe cigarette losses in store," Lightfoot says.
She says that recently, the store had lost 300 packs over a period of a month.
So if single pack, self-serve displays are such easy pickings for shoplifters, why are storeowners willing to have them here? It's because tobacco companies pay a premium to keep them up front.
It's called "slotting," and manufacturers of everything from dog food to potato chips pay retailers for preferred placement. But no one coughs up more dollars than the tobacco companies - somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars, Lightfoot says.
American Lung Association president, John Garrison, believes tobacco companies are willing to look the other way at kids stealing cigarettes. And he thinks he knows why.
"The tobacco industry pays large fees to put cigarettes out there, frequently out of sight of the clerk, very easy to pick up. And that way, teenagers can get their cigarettes and tobacco companies can still get their cigarettes to children, teenagers, and many of them will be addicted," Garrison says.
At the Go-Fer Market in Rifle, Colo., owner Rae Ann Bartels decided to move cigarettes out of reach of sticky fingers, but she said some tobacco companies would rather fight than switch their displays.
"I haven't spoken to Phillip Morris in the last three months," Bartels says. "They were unwilling to work with me at all."
Phillip Morris refused to speak on camera with CBS News, but called charges they condone teenage stealing are "absurd." They said they "support any merchant who wants to move cigarettes to the back."
However, some communities are making the decision for storeowners. In Grand Junction, where Bonnie Lightfoot lives, they just passed an ordinance banning self-serve cigarettes.
"There's no way they can reach them now," Lightfoot says.
As for the young man in the surveillance video, police have yet to catch him. Statistics show that if he's been smoking those stolen cigarettes, he may well become addicted for life.
Reported By Maggie Cooper
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff