S.F. Bans Drugstore Smokes

Tobacco products deemed not compatible with that channel's "healthy" mission

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 3 Tuesday to ban the sale of tobacco in pharmacies beginning this fall, reported the Associated Press. The measure amends San Francisco's health code to prohibit tobacco sales in any pharmacy, whether a small mom-and-pop store or a large retailer like Walgreens. Drugstores caught selling tobacco products in the city will be fined up to $1,000.

"A pharmacy should be a place you go to get better, not a place you go to get cancer," said Nathan Ballard, a spokesperson for the mayor's office.

The citywide ban was modeled [image-nocss] on rules enacted in eight Canadian provinces. Similar proposals have failed this year in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Illinois and New York. San Francisco is the first city in the country to ban the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, Ballard said.

Opponents of the ban say it puts pharmacies at a competitive disadvantage against other retailers and will do little to curb the smoking habits of San Franciscans.

In a letter to Mayor Gavin Newsom's office, Dennis Loper of the California Distributors Association wrote that the ban "limits the rights of legitimate retailers from selling a legal product." The National Association of Chain Drug Stores also sent a letter to the city opposing the ban. "Such a ban would only succeed in making an arbitrary determination as to which retailers would be permitted to sell products that remain legitimately for sale in the state and in the nation," the letter said.

Antismoking advocates are taking the battle against cigarettes to the aisles of pharmacies as well as retailers with in-store health clinics, such as Wal-Mart, arguing that stores promoting health care should not also be selling tobacco products, added The Wall Street Journal.

The issue is a particularly touchy one for Wal-Mart, the newspaper said. Wal-Mart is trying to expand business by positioning itself as a champion of affordable health care, attracting more customers to its pharmacies with cheap prices on generic drugs and opening health clinics in many of its stores, all of which sell tobacco products. Wal-Mart, however, doesn't have stores that would be affected by San Francisco's ban as proposed.

Supporters of the sales bans say they are trying to reduce tobacco-related illnesses by limiting access to cigarettes, which have established health hazards. By ratcheting up the social unacceptability of cigarettes, supporters believe they can deter young people from starting tobacco habits.

Opponents portray the efforts as selective legislation that will have little impact on smoking rates, while making retailers choose between selling what customers want and offering affordable health care.

The San Francisco vote is being closely watched. The city "was the first to ban smoking in workplaces and other public places, and has been a catalyst for other jurisdictions," Matt Myers, president of the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids told the paper. "If San Francisco prohibits the sale of tobacco in pharmacies, we could well see this prohibition spread across major areas of the nation."

A study by researchers at Yale University cited by the Journal found that 82% of 1,000 California pharmacists surveyed and 72% of 988 adult consumers questioned support a ban of tobacco products at pharmacies.

Opponents of the tobacco bans believe stores will get out of the clinic business if they are forced to choose between providing health care and selling cigarettes. "We do not understand how forcing retailers to choose between having an in-store clinic and selling tobacco products serves the broader goal of providing consumers with easier access to high-quality, affordable health care," Tine Hansen-Turton, executive director of the Convenient Care Association, told the paper. The group represents the about 1,000 health clinics located in U.S. retail outlets.

It is a tough call for retailers, which would be forced to give up a big source of revenue and lose a significant customer draw. Grocery stores, drugstores, wholesale clubs and mass merchandisers accounted for 19% of U.S. tobacco sales in the last year, or at least $13 billion, said the report.

But a few big retailers already have given up cigarettes. Target Corp. quit the sales habit in 1996 believing that new laws restricting cigarette sales made them too labor-intensive to dispense. The chain said the financial impact was minimal. Wal-Mart stopped selling cigarettes in its Canadian stores in 1994 as the provincial government of Ontario was adopting a law that would bar stores operating pharmacies from selling cigarettes, a ban seven other Canadian provincial governments later approved.

East Coast grocery chain Wegmans Food Markets Inc. also stopped selling tobacco early this year. (Click here for CSP Daily News coverage.) Another East Coast grocery chain, DeCicco Markets, followed suit shortly thereafter. (Click here for coverage.)

Retailers are grappling with the ethics of reconciling a health care business with tobacco sales. In November, CEO Thomas Ryan of CVS said his company was considering eventually halting the sale of cigarettes. "We have a vision in our company to strive to improve human life, and it is a challenge around cigarettes," he told the paper. "It's a big number from a dollar standpoint.... We've had internal battles and discussions. I wouldn't rule it out at some point down the road."

Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has indicated customer preferences dictate what it sells at its stores. "There are still a tremendous number of our customers who smoke," Scott recently told the Journal. "We've got a market to serve, and second we've got shareholders to think about," he said.

Doug McMillon, head of Wal-Mart's Sam's Club unit that sells its tobacco products mainly to convenience stores, said halting cigarette sales is something he has "thought about. I don't expect it to happen in the next year. It's a big business, so it makes it harder to stop," he told the paper.

The San Francisco proposal would not affect sales at grocery stores with pharmacies or warehouse clubs such as Costco Wholesale Corp. Backers reason that grocery stores and warehouse clubs do not market themselves as promoting health care, Mitch Katz, director of San Francisco's Department of Public Health. "Supermarkets draw a cross-section of people, but a pharmacy attracts a vulnerable population—people with illnesses," he told the paper.

New York Assemblyman Sam Hoyt drafted a bill earlier this year to restrict the sale of tobacco-related products in pharmacies, including those in grocery stores and big-box retailers. He said he acted after Wegmans halted cigarette sales, because he didn't think enough retailers would follow its lead voluntarily. The bill didn't make it out of committee, but Mr. Hoyt said he will try again next year.

A bill drafted by the Illinois State Medical Society earlier this year drew a rebuke from the Federal Trade Commission, which criticized portions of it as potentially anti-competitive. In addition to banning tobacco products and alcohol at stores with walk-in health clinics, the bill would require permits to operate clinics, curb clinic price-comparison ads and require more physician involvement. After the Illinois bill stalled in committee, members of the Illinois State Medical Society have tackled a revision, and plan to introduce the new version this fall, said the report.

Click herefor San Francisco Board of Supervisors documents on the ban.