Friday, December 19, 2008

Boston's WGBH Airs Debate on New Boston Tobacco Regulations

Boston's WGBH - on a segment called Greater Boston with Emily Rooney - aired a very interesting debate about the newly enacted smoking regulations, which: (1) outlaw new cigar and hookah bars and eliminate existing cigar and hookah bars in 1o years; and (2) prohibit the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies and on college campuses.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, supported the regulations while Professor Leonard Glantz of my own Boston University School of Public Health argued that these regulations go too far and are not advancing any public health purpose.

The Rest of the Story

I thought the most interesting and informative part of the segment was when Dr. Ferrer defended the ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies by arguing that: "It's like alcohol or guns. You shouldn't be able to buy it anywhere."

I agree that like alcohol or guns, cigarettes are dangerous and that you shouldn't be able to buy them anywhere. However, what sense does it make to say that you just shouldn't be able to
buy cigarettes in a pharmacy? How is buying cigarettes at a liquor store, convenience store, gas station, or grocery store any better than buying cigarettes at a pharmacy?

I can understand the rationale for limiting where guns are sold because the state has an interest in making sure that those who purchase guns meet specific criteria (age, past criminal record, waiting period, etc.). I can understand limiting where alcohol is sold because the state has an interest in making sure that young people (under age 21) cannot easily purchase alcohol. I can even understand regulating where tobacco is sold to the extent that the state has an interest in ensuring that minors cannot purchase tobacco and thus some form of tobacco sales licensing seems appropriate.

However, I simply don't see any legitimate state interest in ensuring that of all places where people can buy tobacco, pharmacies are not one of them. This is the point which Dr. Ferrer never seemed to address during the segment.

After watching the segment, I have become more convinced that the pharmacy tobacco sales ban makes little public health sense and more confused as to the rationale for this regulation.

If the concern is that youths shouldn't be exposed to tobacco products, then why didn't the Commission ban the sale of tobacco products in all places where youths are allowed? Clearly, the problem is not that youths are exposed to tobacco products -- it's that youths are exposed to tobacco products in pharmacies. But why that very narrow concern? Why is it only pharmacy sales of tobacco that are problematic? This seems to be a very narrow, not a holistic, view of public health. But most troublesome to me is that I can't seem to find the public health protection that this law is providing.

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