Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a plan to ban the display of tobacco products at retail outlets in an effort to protect public health and to reduce the ability of the tobacco industry to market its deadly products, especially to children. This move is the latest in a series of steps over the past few years in New York to combat the tobacco epidemic.

While the law would be the first in the U.S., a number of other countries have already instituted such bans, including the United Kingdom, Thailand, Turkey, and Uruguay. Norway recently won a court case against its display ban brought by the tobacco industry under international trade rules.

Marketing bans, including retail displays, are a key component of the world’s first public health treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The treaty has already been joined by 175 countries and is currently being implemented around the world. The U.S. signed the FCTC in 2004 but has not yet ratified it.

“The FCTC is the blueprint of proven methods that reduce the harm caused by tobacco use,”said Laurent Huber, Executive Director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a U.S. public health nonprofit formed in 1967. “Even though the U.S. has not yet ratified the treaty, it should implement the life-saving measures of the FCTC in order to fully protect the health of the U.S. population.” ASH and many other public health groups have publicly supported Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-tobacco initiatives.

While smoking rates have gone down in the U.S. over the past two generations, tobacco still kills around 450,000 Americans annually, and about half of all long-term smokers will die from their preventable habit. Globally, tobacco use has reached epidemic proportions as the tobacco industry has tirelessly sought new markets in the developing world. Roughly 6 million people die annually around the world, and that figure is expected to spike dramatically in the coming years. The World Health Organization estimates that without strong action tobacco will kill 1 billion people in the 21stcentury.

Beyond the health toll, tobacco costs governments and individuals billions of dollars each year in medical expenses and lost productivity. Estimates of the true societal cost of a pack of cigarettes range from $20 to over $200. Meanwhile, the global tobacco industry earns over $35 billion in profits each year, or about $6,000 per death caused.

“The tobacco industry will scream loudly about this measure, trying to paint it as radical and unnecessary,” said Huber. “But marketing regulations have become the norm in a growing number of countries, and I have no doubts that in a few years we will think of tobacco displays in stores the same way we think of smoking on airplanes – a thing of the past.”