Monday, April 25, 2011

Can the Government Ban Hypocrisy? Why Pharmacy Tobacco Sales Bans are Not Justified

According to an article in yesterday's Boston Globe, pharmacy tobacco sales bans are spreading across Massachusetts, with nine cities and towns have enacted such policies in the past three years. The justification for these policies, as expressed by one of the town's tobacco control coordinators, is that the laws are necessary to prevent the hypocrisy of stores selling healthful products and cigarettes at the same time.

According to the article: "The pace of Massachusetts cities and towns banning tobacco sales at pharmacies appears to be accelerating: Of nine such bans that have taken effect since early 2009, four began this year, and more are under consideration. South of Boston, Sharon defeated a proposed ban April 11, but the Wareham Board of Health may opt for one, according to Bob Collett, director the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Control Program. Collett made a presentation to the Wareham board recently. 'I’m confident that it will happen there,' he said. 'They do understand the obvious hypocrisy of selling tobacco in a health care setting such as a pharmacy, and they have supported tobacco control efforts in the past.'"

The Rest of the Story

I just don't see how government intervention is justified for the purpose of preventing hypocrisy. If that were the case, it would justify a slew of laws to regulate the behavior of tobacco control groups. For the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids alone, there would be about 25 laws on the books.

Yes, it is hypocritical for pharmacies that market themselves as being part of the health care establishment to also sell cigarettes. But it is far more hypocritical for policy makers to send the message that selling cigarettes in pharmacies is bad, while selling them in gas stations and convenience stores is just fine.

Preventing hypocrisy is not a legitimate justification for government intervention into private businesses. I find it highly hypocritical for corporations like Coca-Cola to contribute money to organizations like the American Dietetic Association. That is highly hypocritical, but there is no justification for a government law to prevent such contributions. It is hypocritical for Boston University to host Charlie Sheen for his side-show, but enacting a law to tell the University it can't do that is not warranted. It seems hypocritical for Burger King to sell Whoppers alongside fresh salads, but it doesn't justify a government law to regulate the foods that Burger King can and cannot sell.

Government intervention is justified to prevent the public from health hazards. But the sale of tobacco in pharmacies is not a health hazard. The health hazard is the sale of tobacco, period. In fact, pharmacy sales bans define the problem in the wrong way. They frame the problem as the sale of tobacco in certain types of stores. That's not the problem. The problem is that the products, wherever they are sold, are toxic and addictive.

In the long run, I believe that the focus on pharmacy cigarette sales ban is harming, more than helping the tobacco control cause. Why? Because:

1. These policies do nothing to protect the public's health. They will not reduce the sale of tobacco to minors, because kids will simply buy their cigarettes elsewhere. In fact, most kids don't buy their cigarettes in pharmacies to begin with.

2. These policies frame the issue in exactly the wrong way. They send the message that the sale of cigarettes is perfectly fine, as long as you don't also sell pharmaceutical products. They take the focus off the actual issue at hand, which is that cigarettes are a deadly product, no matter where they are sold.

No comments: