Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Westford Considering Ordinance to Ban Sale of Cigarettes in Pharmacies

The town of Westford (Massachusetts) is considering an ordinance that would ban the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies.

According to an article in the Lowell Sun, the head of the Board of Health explained the rationale for the ordinance as follows: "The thinking is pharmacies are supposed to sell items that are healthy, good for you and to help you get better. Selling cigarettes behind the same counter is counterproductive."

The director of health care services for the town explained the rationale for the ordinance in similar terms: "Pharmacies are supposedly a location that helps people overcome illness and disease. We don't want them to sell something that can cause cancer or is a health concern."

The Rest of the Story

This is terrible hypocrisy. The Board of Health doesn't want pharmacies to "sell something that can cause cancer." However, the Board of Health is perfectly fine with any other type of store selling products that cause cancer.

Not only is the policy hypocritical, but it is also unjustified. The Board of Health is charged with the mission of protecting the public's health, not with the mission of ensuring that stores do not take actions that it views as counterproductive. It is not a justified or appropriate use of the city's police powers to start regulating whether stores are being counterproductive. The appropriate use of the city's police powers is to take actions that will improve the public's health.

Everyone - even the ordinance's supporters - agrees that this ordinance would not improve the public's health. It would not decrease the sale of tobacco products, as consumers would simply buy their cigarettes at other stores. It would not decrease the sale of tobacco products to minors as there are plenty of other places where youth can obtain these products. In fact, pharmacies are the least likely place where minors currently buy their cigarettes. They are much more likely to purchase cigarettes from gas stations and convenience stores.

So if it doesn't improve the public's health, then the only purpose of the ordinance is to regulate the mission of pharmacies. In other words, the purpose is to make sure that the products being sold meet some sort of arbitrary standard of what pharmacies are supposed to sell. This is far beyond the mission of the city government.

I think the ordinance is not only hypocritical and unjustified, but damaging. It is damaging because it frames the issue of tobacco products in the wrong way. It says that the sale of tobacco products is fine as long as you are not a pharmacy. It says that the only thing wrong with cigarettes is the place where they are sold. It doesn't bring me any consolation to know that if a person dies from lung cancer, they purchased their cigarettes at a gas station rather than at a pharmacy. It serves no public health purpose to ensure that when consumers buy deadly products, they do so at convenience stores rather than at pharmacies.

These policies are just another example of the recent trend in tobacco control to enact feel-good laws that make it look like politicians are doing something about the problem, but which actually don't do anything to address the death and disease caused by tobacco products. They do, however, allow politicians to say that they did something about the problem. While they may garner some votes, they do nothing to improve the public's health or save people's lives.

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