Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Worcester City Council Poised to Tell Pharmacies: You Can Sell Soda, Junk Food, and Hazardous Chemical Products, But Not Tobacco

According to an article in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Worcester City Council is considering an ordinance that would ban the sale of tobacco in pharmacies.

According to the article: "Given the flak it has received in some quarters, it will be interesting to see if the City Council proceeds with efforts to have Worcester join a handful of communities across the state in banning the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products by local health care providers, including chain pharmacies and other drugstores, and colleges. While advocates of the proposal consider it an important public health initiative, others strongly feel the council is overreaching big time with it and just another example of the “nanny state” mentality prevalent in Massachusetts. They contend it is nothing more than a feel-good ordinance that will do little, if anything, to cut down on the number of Worcester residents who smoke, while imposing yet another financial hardship on a sector of the local business community. Heck, if people aren’t going to be able buy cigarettes in a pharmacy, they will simply go to a nearby convenience store or elsewhere to buy their smokes. So, what’s the point of such a targeted ban?"

The Rest of the Story

That's a fair question. What is the point of a city government banning the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies?

The point is that the city is making sure that its own perception of the appropriate mission of these retail stores is consistent with the types of products that it offers for sale. In other words, the justification for this law is that is it necessary to ensure that the perceived mission of retail stores is consistent with the products that they sell to the public.

This is hardly an adequate justification for the use of the state's police powers to intervene in the private decisions of business owners as to what legal products to offer for sale to the public.

Moreover, if the government's true interest is in making sure that the perceived health-promotion mission of a pharmacy is not undermined by the sale of products that are harmful to health, then why allow pharmacies to continue to sell soda and junk food, which are unhealthy and are contributing towards the nation's obesity epidemic?

If the concern of the Council is in reducing smoking, then it should actually take quite the opposite action: it should ban the sale of cigarettes in corner convenience stores and gas stations, where kids are most likely to be obtaining those cigarettes, and ensure that the only sale of tobacco products that can take place is in large chain stores which have strong training programs to reduce the sale of cigarettes to minors.

Which do think are responsible for a greater amount of cigarette sales to minors in Worcester? Its ten CVS stores or the combination of its ten 7-Eleven, Store 24, Madison Shell Food Mart, Cow Farm Mini Mart, DJ's Convenience Store, Chandler Street Gas & Food, Yankee Food Mart, and Honey Farms stores?

This law will simply shift sales of cigarettes from pharmacies over to convenience stores and gas stations. It will not result in any decrease in the sale of tobacco to minors, nor in youth cigarette use.

How can this type of government intrusion be justified when the only tangible result is a loss of profit by some stores and a gain in profit by other stores? Is it really a legitimate government interest to regulate who profits from the sale of tobacco products and who does not?

But most importantly, what possible consolation is it for our society to know that the lung cancer and heart disease deaths of its citizens are being caused by cigarettes sold at gas stations and convenience stores, rather than by cigarettes sold at pharmacies?

I'm afraid we've lost sight of the proper way to frame this issue. Are cigarettes a problem because they kill people? Or are they a problem because they are sold in certain types of stores? If only cigarette sales were restricted to gas stations and convenience stores, then we could all breathe a lot easier, knowing that somehow we have tackled this issue head on. Or maybe, instead, we've diverted attention away from the evidence-based measures which have been proven to reduce cigarette use.

You don't see any tobacco companies fighting against these proposals. Perhaps it's because they know their profits are safe: cigarette sales are not going to decline.

Is it not sad that it is the tobacco companies, but not many public health advocates, who are aware that these laws are not public health measures in the first place? They are feel-good measures that may bring the opportunity for political propaganda statements, but they do not save lives or protect the public's health.

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