Sunday, August 16, 2009

addiction and your friendly neighborhood convenience store

I've always thought of 24-hour convenience stores like Circle K and 7/11 as, well, significant conveniences. When I look for a new place to live, I have always looked for a nearby convenience store. But lately I've realized that most of what I buy at those places are things I really shouldn't be buying --and that I probably wouldn't be buying if it weren't so convenient.

I'll bet that well over 90% of the income from convenience stores comes from alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and junk food. One important thing that all of these things have in common is that they are all addictive. Maybe they aren't all addictive in a technical medical sense (I honestly don't know) but they all cause physical changes in the body that lead to compulsive behavior. What I mean by compulsive behavior is this: you can decided during the day that you aren't going to drink alcohol tonight, for example, or that you aren't going to eat any junk food tonight, and then later that night you change your mind and do it anyway, even though you know that you are going to regret it later. If it is something that you know that you should not do but you do it anyway, repeatedly and over a long period of time going through cycles of deciding not to do it, doing it, and then regretting that you did it --that's compulsive.

In particular, compulsive behavior follows cycles where sometimes you have the will to resist the compulsion and sometimes you do not. If you can predict when the compulsion will be greater, then you can take steps to make the compulsive behavior harder to satisfy during those times so that you are less likely to do it. For example, I'm a junk-food-aholic. I eat junk food compulsively (by the way, sugar and other simple carbohydrates do have a physiological effect much like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine). One of the hardest times to resist junk food is late at night when I'm close to going to bed (and that's also the worst time to eat it). Because of this, I never keep junk food in the house. When I buy it, I never buy more than I plan to eat right away. Depending on where I live, this can greatly decrease the amount of junk food that I eat.

But that's where convenience stores come in. When I live close to a convenience store, all I have to do is put my shoes on, walk a couple of blocks, and get any junk food I want. The convenience store nullifies my method of controlling my junk-food intake (I actually enjoy the short walk). I've never had a problem with alcohol or cigarettes, but I'll bet the effect is the same. Night time is the time of relaxing, of letting go of the discipline of the day. It is the time that compulsions are often the strongest. If it weren't for convenience stores, people could plan to reduce their intake of harmful things just by not having them in the home. But convenience stores negate that.

Now, I'm not implying that convenience-store owners are the bad guys here. They are just responding to demand --it isn't their job to decide if they are really doing the customer a favor by meeting the demand. Lots of people want a convenient place to buy alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and simple carbohydrates and don't regret the purchase later. Also, convenience stores do carry items that are often needed late at night or in a hurry: automobile oil, drugs, hygiene products and other things. The stores probably could not stay in business just selling such emergency supplies.

Still, I wonder if there is some way to reduce the harmful side-effect of convenience stores without losing the convenience.