A virtual reality game study of teens by the New York Department of Health found that in virtual convenience stores, 16 to 24 percent of teens tried to buy tobacco when the cigarette display was open, compared with 9 to 11 percent when it was closed.
Requiring stores to hide tobacco product displays is one option some states are considering to curb teen smoking after the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 was passed, according to the study's lead author.
"We know the retail environment is a very important place for tobacco companies to advertise and market their products," said Annice Kim, from the independent research institute RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
"They're prominently displayed at the point of sale, and it exposes all customers, including kids."
Kim's team wanted to test the effects of covering up such cigarette displays on teen shopping and opinion. But the researchers couldn't conduct a real world experiment because as of yet, no states have banned the displays.
So they designed a virtual reality game and sent more than 1,200 youth, between age 13 and 17, into a simulated online convenience store. Researchers asked the participants to select four items in the store: a snack from the aisles, a drink from the coolers and two products of their choice from the checkout counter.
In some scenarios, the cabinet behind the counter prominently displayed cigarettes, while other teens saw the cabinet closed and the display covered up.
Any teens that tried to ask the cashier for cigarettes were denied because of age - but what the researchers were interested in was how many asked.