No matter what else is sold at Philadelphia's corner stores, gas stations, and convenience stores, if they're licensed to sell tobacco, the main message on signs outside those stores is this: Buy cigarettes.
So says a new study that finds the prevalence of those stores, and that message, in low-income areas helps the tobacco industry reach children in those neighborhoods long before they're old enough to legally buy its products.
The study, being released Monday by the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and the city Department of Public Health, also found the stores where tobacco marketing is heaviest tend to advertise and display sugary beverages, candy, and chips - while healthier alternatives such as water, diet soda, and low-fat milk are rarely advertised, if at all.
"It's stunning the number of tobacco outlets there are in Philadelphia," said Amy Hillier, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Penn's School of Design who directed a team of a dozen students and community members who set out to visit 4,639 licensed tobacco retailers over eight months starting in 2011 and ending in 2012.
"They're not distributed evenly around the city," Hillier said Friday in an interview. "There are a lot more opportunities to buy tobacco products in low-income neighborhoods, and a disproportionate exposure to advertising by the tobacco and sugary beverage industries."
Hillier's team focused on 2,805 tobacco retailers the researchers were able to visit and see from the inside. They reported that about one in eight of those establishments had failed to post legally required signs warning that tobacco products would not be sold to minors.
Outside the stores, many outlets illegally attached cigarette advertising to street signs or utility poles, or set up freestanding tobacco ads on sidewalks, the study found.
William R. Phelps, a spokesman for Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, US Smokeless Tobacco Co., and John Middleton, a manufacturer of pipe tobacco and cigars, said the company's ads were aimed not at children, but at seeking "the business of adult tobacco consumers where they make their purchases."
He said the cigarette firms pay retailers to take part in age-verification programs, and to spread the word that it's illegal to buy tobacco for minors. Phelps also said rates of tobacco use among high school students "are lower - by half or more - in Philadelphia than the national rate."
Phelps also noted that Philip Morris and US Smokeless Tobacco had agreed to legal settlements that bar other forms of advertising, including billboards, transit ads, and movie product placements.
The study being released Monday amounts to a closer look at territory already familiar to Hillier, the Penn professor. Working at the intersection of advertising, geography, and public health, she led an academic study published in 2009 comparing the prevalance of "unhealthy" advertising – for alcoholic and sugary beverages, tobacco products, and fast food - in Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.
In that study, Philadelphia led in the number of "unhealthy" ads per square mile and their proximity to schools, day-care centers, and other "child-serving institutions."
"In Philadelphia, the extreme case, two-thirds of all institutions had an unhealthy ad within 1,000 feet and the typical institution had six unhealthy ads within 1,000 feet. This is a distance of less than two city blocks.. . . In other words, most children in Los Angeles and Philadelphia - especially in areas with racial/ethnic minorities - could be exposed to multiple unhealthy outdoor ads on a daily basis just by walking to school," the earlier study found.
In Austin, the most common "unhealthy" ad was for alcohol; in Los Angeles, it was for alcohol or fast food. In Philadelphia, the greatest number advertised tobacco - likely one of the reasons smoking rates in Philadelphia remain among the highest of the nation's 10 largest cities, according to city health officials.
Though the percentage of adults in Philadelphia who smoke has been declining - from 25 percent in 2007 to 20.7 percent in 2010, according to data kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - the city Health Department estimates smoking-related illnesses still kill 2,400 city residents annually.
The pattern Hillier's researchers saw in signs around local stores will come as no surprise to residents of many Philadelphia neighborhoods. Some corner stores in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, for example, are plastered with ads for cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, sugary drinks like Pepsi, and salty snacks such as Doritos.
On Sunday, a man working behind the glass counter at Hoagie Town on Point Breeze Avenue who identified himself as David said he hadn't really thought about how the advertising signs outside his store might influence children. He said he believed that as they grow up, children are sure to try some products regardless of advertising.
He also said children were not allowed to shop in his establishment.
Inquirer staff writer Sulaiman Abdur- Rahman contributed to this article.