Wednesday, November 18, 2009

San Francisco to Consider Legislation to Limit to 385 the Number of Stores that Can Sell Tobacco

According to an article in the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco will soon consider legislation that would limit to 385 the number of stores in the city allowed to sell tobacco products. The proposal is intended to protect the public's health by limiting tobacco exposure to children.

According to the article: "An initial proposal imposes a cap of 35 permits for each of the 11 supervisor districts — 385 total in The City. That is more than a two-thirds reduction from the 1,097 stores currently selling tobacco products citywide. The proposal would not take away permits from businesses, but it would reduce them through attrition until there are no more than 35 per district. Also, owners would not be able to transfer the permits when they sell their stores, said Janet Clyde, a commissioner in the Office of Small Business. The proposal might limit options for smokers, but it would also limit tobacco exposure to children, said Matt Rosen, senior director of community programs for the Youth Leadership Institute. The institute wrote the legislation and is receiving guidance from Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and the Department of Public Health. The legislation is still being vetted and has not been endorsed by a supervisor. “[Children] can see advertising,” Rosen said. “They can see stores that are visibly selling tobacco and other kinds of products that aren’t very good for them.” The Department of Health says limiting permits would be an extension of its 'commitment to public health.'"

The Rest of the Story

This is the latest in a series of proposals coming out of San Francisco that make it appear policy makers are truly concerned about the devastating effects of tobacco, but which actually accomplish nothing.

The first in the series was the city's ban on tobacco sales at pharmacies......except, of course, pharmacies located in box stores (like Costco) and supermarkets. What sense does it make to prevent cigarettes from being sold in your corner pharmacies, but allow them to be sold in big box stores and supermarkets? Clearly, this policy is not going to curtail the sale of cigarettes. Instead, it will merely re-distribute the income from cigarette sales from small, local businesses to large national chains. Hardly a measure that has anything to do with public health protection. But policy makers and anti-smoking groups are touting this policy to make themselves look (and feel) good. Nothing but window dressing.

It's also terribly inconsistent and hypocritical. If cigarettes are so bad that they should not be sold in corner pharmacies, then why aren't cigarettes so bad that they shouldn't be sold at Costco or in supermarkets? Obviously, this measure isn't about public health protection, it's about being political cowards and trying to achieve political gain without having to actually take a principled stand.

Now we have a similar proposal: cigarettes are so bad and their sale exposes children and promotes tobacco use. So what are we going to do about it? Get rid of the sale of cigarettes in San Francisco stores? No, of course not. Instead, we're going to set an arbitrary limit of 385 stores that can sell tobacco.

What the crafters of this proposal are basically saying is: "It's only a problem if more than 385 stores in San Francisco sell cigarettes. As long as we limit the number of stores that sell cigarettes to 385 or less, then everything is fine. There's no need to protect the kids that live around those 385 stores from the sale of cigarettes, just the kids who would live around the 386th store."

This is absurdity. It makes no sense. If there is a public health justification for banning the sale of tobacco products in San Francisco, then ban it. If not, then don't. But to pretend that arbitrarily setting the number of tobacco outlets at 385 is some sort of public health measure is insane. It does nothing to prevent the sale of cigarettes, which will certainly remain readily available with 385 outlets in the city.

Do you mean to tell me that if there 386 stores that sell cigarettes in San Francisco, there is a major public health problem, but if we get that number down to 384, we have addressed that problem?

I just don't understand this type of reasoning. What are these folks thinking?

The rest of the story is that limiting the number of stores in San Francisco that sell cigarettes to 385 is not going to have any impact on smoking and the policy therefore does not protect the public's health. As such, it represents an unjustified intrusion on private business and is therefore an arbitrary and inappropriate public policy. If advocates want to work in their communities and try to limit the sale of tobacco, that is fine. It serves an educational purpose and allows the community to mobilize around the issue. But a legislated mandate on the number of stores of a given type is not justified unless there is evidence that it would serve a substantial government interest, like protecting the public's health. Cutting the number of tobacco-selling stores from 1097 to 385 is not going to have any impact on smoking in San Francisco. Cigarettes will remain readily accessible.

An unfortunate aspect to this story is that this senseless proposal is being spearheaded by a youth leadership institute that is being funded, in part, by taxpayer money (the San Francisco Department of Health) and in part by the American Legacy Foundation, which is supposed to be "building a world where young people can reject tobacco," not "building a world in which young people are subjected to no more than 35 tobacco outlets per city district."

I don't understand what they are teaching these youths. From what I can see, it's something like: "If you see a severe public health problem, pass a law that puts arbitrary limits on the problem and interferes with business in a way that won't actually have any impact on the problem, but will make it look like you are doing something."

They're not preparing these youths to be leaders. What they're preparing them to be is the politicians and, I guess, anti-smoking practitioners of the future.

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