From an ethical standpoint, it makes little sense that health care retailers — in the business of selling products that are supposed to make people healthier — would also sell products that are known to kill. So goes the thinking of Teens Against Drug Abuse, part of the BOLD Coalition, which has pushed for an ordinance that the city’s Law Department has drafted and is being considered by the Fall River City Council’s Committee on Ordinances & Legislation tonight.
The legislation would amend the 1999 city law that pertains to the sale, vending and distribution of tobacco products. If approved, Fall River would join Boston, Needham, Newton and Everett in the list of Massachusetts cities that have made such laws. Fall River should not become the fifth city in Massachusetts to do so; no other city should.
There is no question that smoking is a plague on the health of Fall River’s residents, with 28.2 percent of the population still smoking, according to a 2010 state Department of Public Health study. That’s double the statewide average. That number is also directly reflected in the high incidence of related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease in this city.
But banning tobacco products from being sold at retail stores — like CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid and local businesses that also have pharmacies — does nothing to actually prevent people from buying them elsewhere.
People are not able to go to a pharmacy counter and buy cigarettes; they go to a retail counter in a store that happens to have a pharmacy in it.
It should be the company that makes the determination as to whether to sell such products — whether tobacco or other harmful substances — from a business and public relations standpoint, not the government. Therefore, if anti-tobacco concerns want to realize their goal of banning the sale of tobacco products from these stores, they should make their case and place consumer pressure on the stores themselves, not ask the government to force them to do so. Proponents point out that Boston rescinded 75 tobacco sales permits but present no data indicating whether the sales of tobacco products were affected at all.
The sale of tobacco products could be the difference between what makes a store profitable enough to stay open or whether it would be shuttered. If the pharmacy closes, not only is the city out of tax revenue and jobs, but many shoppers, including the poor and elderly, are out of a place to easily get their prescriptions, along with other goods that are much less expensive at these retailers than at a corner store.
This measure would artificially take revenue from one type of retail business and give it to other businesses that are not nearly as responsible in their commitment to public health or overall benefit to the community. The city and state would be better off using tax revenue from tobacco sales (from any store) to help fund smoking and tobacco cessation programs. If their goal is tobacco control, they should present themselves as such and highlight the dangers of tobacco use and help smokers find ways to break their addiction, rather than becoming an arm of law enforcement and big government.
Government intrusion in the free market is not the answer. In reality, this measure could cause more harm than good. Fall River shouldn’t buy into the smoke and mirrors — and the lack of any tangible benefit, but potential for danger — that such legislative initiatives offer. Don’t make the cure worse than the disease.
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