When entering a large chain pharmacy store most notably a CVS, Rite Aid or Walgreens it becomes obvious pharmacies are branching out into health-care services. Featuring in-store clinics, virtual doctor’s visits, immunizations and tests for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, pharmacies offer families more medical conveniences than ever before.
Yet while big-box pharmacies market themselves as “wellness centers,” they still sell tobacco — a product, that when employed as directed, kills half of its users.
This raises ethical questions among pharmacists in the Capital District and across New York.
In April, the Albany County Legislature heard from several dozen community members as they passionately voiced their support for ending the sale of tobacco in pharmacies. Students and teachers, pharmacists and business owners, ex-smokers and health advocates encouraged the Legislature to become the first in New York to create tobacco-free pharmacies. If such a law passes, Albany County will be following in the footsteps of Massachusetts, where 56 communities have already prohibited tobacco sales in pharmacies. Not one has been challenged in court.
In addition, the majority of independently owned community pharmacies do not sell tobacco, and 88 percent of these businesses report they have experienced either no loss or an increase in business since removing tobacco from their shelves. Hudson Falls Pharmacist and owner of McCann’s Rexall Pharmacy Jason McCann explains, “Our customers are like family to us, and we care about their health. We felt removing tobacco products is a good step to promote healthy living.”
According to the American Pharmaceutical Association House of Delegates, more than 95 percent of pharmacists agree with McCann, opposing tobacco sales on ethical grounds.
Let’s face it: Tobacco in pharmacies does not make sense. A pharmacy is a place where patients purchase medications to treat diseases worsened by tobacco. It is a place where parents go for their children’s health, a place providing medicine, but also school supplies, candy and toys that are often placed near cigarette and spit tobacco displays.
The perceptions of pharmacies, reinforced by their marketing, is that they are associated with good health. Linking tobacco to health-promoting products and services sends a message that it is not so bad to smoke, and with the product visible front and center in the stores tobacco use continues to be acceptable and normal, contributing to higher rates of youth smoking.
Many ask if such legislation will make a difference, and if these measures will actually reduce smoking rates. It was just 10 years ago New York approved the Clean Indoor Air Act, enabling today’s children to go to restaurants with their families without having to be surrounded by dangerous secondhand smoke. In the future, pharmacies can also be disassociated from smoking. Perhaps our children will look at the front of “wellness centers” and find it strange that those pharmacy shelves were once lined with tobacco.
Pam Fisher is the Outreach Coordinator for the Southern Adirondack Tobacco-Free Coalition, a program of The Prevention Council of Saratoga County serving the Adirondack region for more than ten years. The Coalition is funded by the New York State Department of Health, Tobacco Control Program. Regarding tobacco-free pharmacies in Albany County, a vote from the full legislature is expected within the next couple of months.