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Panel urges pharmacy tobacco sales ban

Frustrated health council approaching lawmakers directly to pass legislation

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / March 22, 2012
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Frustrated Massachusetts public health regulators pledged Wednesday to take their campaign for a ban on tobacco sales at pharmacies directly to state lawmakers and the Patrick administration.

Five months ago, the state Public Health Council voted unanimously to direct administration officials to investigate the feasibility of prohibiting tobacco sales at drugstores, a measure now in place in about two dozen Massachusetts cities and towns.

But with little evidence of movement on the issue, the council - an appointed panel of doctors, consumer advocates, and professors - decided Wednesday to press its case in a letter-writing campaign to Beacon Hill lawmakers.

“It is morally reprehensible for health care facilities . . . to continue to sell products that will kill a third of their patrons and drive the others to use their numerous pharmacies for their [smoking-related] illnesses,’’ said Dr. Alan Woodward, past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and a member of the Public Health Council.

The initiative will include letters to the Legislature, the Patrick administration, and the state’s Board of Registration in Pharmacy, which regulates pharmacists, asking it to take “all appropriate actions’’ to end the sale of tobacco in pharmacies.

Legislation to ban tobacco sales at pharmacies is pending. John Auerbach, the state’s public health commissioner, said his department has discussed a ban with lawmakers and is exploring whether the administration can act independently.

Boston, Fall River, and Worcester are among the cities that no longer permit the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products at pharmacies, declaring that such sales are incompatible with the health care mission of drug stores.

The Public Health Council’s actions came the same day that US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin spoke at a State House rally about the dangers of the tobacco industry’s marketing to youth. Benjamin released a report this month that found that tobacco kills more than 1,200 Americans every day. Each day, said the report, at least 2,400 young people become regular smokers.

The council also voted to send letters to the boards of directors of all major pharmacy chains in the state, asking them to review policies regarding tobacco sales.

Michael DeAngelis, spokesman for CVS/pharmacy, said in a statement that the sale of tobacco products is a “challenging issue’’ for the company because, while its pharmacies are health care providers, tobacco products remain legal for adult consumers.

“We do not advertise or promote tobacco products, and we place them behind the counter so customers must ask for them,’’ DeAngelis said.

There are more than a dozen antismoking bills pending in the Legislature, including two that would restrict the sale of tobacco products at any location where a licensed health professional is employed, including pharmacies.

“There are a huge number of bills that have lagged in the Legislature,’’ said Woodward, who sponsored Wednesday’s Public Health Council action.

The parent company of Philip Morris USA said in a statement it opposes a ban on tobacco sales at pharmacies.

“Such legislation deprives businesses of the opportunity to sell a legal product, unfairly shifts business away from some retailers to others, with no public policy benefit, and imposes an unnecessary inconvenience on adult consumers,’’ said company spokesman David Sutton.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents physicians, sent a letter in December to the Patrick administration urging it to use its regulatory authority over health care facilities, including pharmacies, to halt drug-store tobacco sales.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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