Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Massachusetts to Require Tobacco Retailers to Post Graphic Messages Urging Customers Not to Buy Their Products

According to an article in the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is set to issue regulations that would require tobacco retailers in the state to post graphic warnings about the perils of tobacco wherever tobacco products are sold, urging their customers not to buy these products. The purchase of the posters would be financed by stimulus money from the federal government.

According to the article: "Massachusetts is poised to become the first state in the nation to force retailers to prominently display graphic warnings about the perils of smoking right where cigarettes are sold — at tobacco sales racks and next to cash registers. Images of ominously darkened lungs, damaged brains, and diseased teeth could start appearing before the end of the year in more than 9,000 convenience stores, pharmacies, and gas stations, if a proposal by the state Department of Public Health is approved as expected. Other posters would direct smokers to where they can get help to stamp out their habit. Retailers who refuse to display the signs within 2 feet of tobacco displays and cash registers could face fines of $100 to $300."

"The campaign is being underwritten by $316,000 in federal stimulus money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will allow the state to provide the materials to retailers without charge. Because the posters will be produced by outside vendors, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health said, it conforms to the intent of the stimulus law, providing jobs in a sour economy."

The Rest of the Story

My readers know that I am a strong supporter of anti-tobacco advertising campaigns that discourage kids from starting to smoke and encourage existing smokers to quit. In fact, anti-tobacco advertising is - in my view - the appropriate way for the federal government to address the tobacco problem, rather than wasting its time regulating the ingredients in tobacco products. I would therefore be supportive of any efforts to encourage retailers to voluntarily agree to display tobacco warnings or educational posters to discourage tobacco use.

However, this is not a voluntary campaign. It is a government mandate that stores which sell tobacco must actively discourage their customers from buying the products which they sell. If the state health department believes that tobacco products are so harmful that retailers must be forced to urge customers not to buy their own merchandise, then the state should simply not be allowing these products to be sold. If the state is going to allow stores to sell these products, then I believe it is excessive government intervention to tell stores that they can sell them, but they have to discourage anyone from actually buying them.

Requiring retailers to actively discourage customers from buying their products seems to me to be an unreasonable degree of government intrusion. The reasoning that would support such an intervention would equally apply to all harmful products sold by businesses.

Would it be appropriate for the government to require all grocery stores to put graphic warning posters near the junk food aisle urging customers not to purchase these unhealthy snacks?

Would it be reasonable for the government to require grocery stores to post graphic posters at the soda aisle urging customers not to purchase soda because of the morbidity and mortality caused by obesity, to which soda contributes significantly?

Should tanning salons be required to post disgusting pictures of skin cancers at their entrances, urging potential customers not to enter?

Should wood stove stores be required to post graphic posters depicting the horrible consequences of lung disease, which we know is caused by wood smoke exposure?

Should fast food restaurants have to post large, graphic posters showing the terrible health consequences of excessive fat intake, actively discouraging potential customers from eating there?

It seems to me that if a product is so unsuitable for public consumption that the government must require stores to actively discourage customers from buying their own products, then the government needs to simply prohibit stores from selling that product.

To be clear, I'm not calling on the prohibition of tobacco sales in Massachusetts. But I am arguing that requiring stores to actively discourage customers from buying the products which they legally sell is not an appropriate use of the government's police powers.

If Massachusetts is seriously concerned about reducing tobacco use, it should restore funding to its anti-smoking media campaign, for which there is solid scientific evidence of its substantial effect on cigarette smoking rates in the state. The state should take upon itself the responsibility of discouraging tobacco use, rather than requiring stores which legally sell these products to urge customers to deprive these stores of a livelihood. If the state really wants to show its commitment to reducing tobacco use, it will restore funding to a program which used to be a model for the nation in terms of its proven effect on both reducing youth smoking initiation and promoting adult smoking cessation.

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