Marin County ordinance passed last week that bans sale of tobacco in pharmacies affects only a couple stores. But county officials hope their action will reverberate in cities and towns across the county.
The bold move by the Board of Supervisors means that effective Oct. 1, pharmacies in unincorporated Marin can no longer sell tobacco as they do now — in the same place they sell medical and health-care products.
In practice, the ban on tobacco sales only affects the Strawberry Safeway and the Tamalpais Valley Walgreens stores, both of which are in the unincorporated area where the Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction. Other pharmacies in unincorporated Marin such as the West Marin Pharmacy in Point Reyes Station and CVS Caremark in Greenbrae do not sell tobacco. CVS announced earlier this year it was pulling tobacco from all its stores' shelves.
The Marin ban drew strong support from the county's tobacco-related disease control program, the Smoke Free Marin Coalition, the Marin County Pharmacists Association and others.
"How can pharmacies justify tobacco sales?" asked Aglaia Panos, of the Marin association. "It violates the pharmacists' code of conduct."
And it sends a mixed message.
As the county counsel advised the Board of Supervisors in a brief memo: "The rationale for the ordinance is that retailers who are promoting the cure for tobacco-related illnesses should not be promoting the sales of the cause."
In March, more than two dozen attorneys general across the country sent letters to some of the largest U.S. pharmacy retailers — Rite Aid, Walgreens, Kroger, Safeway and Walmart — urging them to stop selling tobacco.
"There is a contradiction in having these dangerous and devastating tobacco products on the shelves of a retail chain that services health care needs," the letters said.
The effort to ban tobacco in pharmacies gained momentum this year with the CVS move, the letters from the state attorneys general and — just last month — the state Board of Pharmacy's support for a ban on pharmacy sales of tobacco statewide. Such a move would require legislative action.
San Francisco has had a ban on the books for several years, and Marin officials are hoping their ordinance will spur others to action. Anti-tobacco activists say they have begun talking with city officials across the county, urging them to follow suit.
Such moves, like crackdowns on smoking in public areas, may not be a hard sell in Marin, where surveys show only 7.4 percent of residents smoke — the lowest rate in California, which averages 11.3 percent. Surveys show the national average is 18 percent.
Given all that, we have to again question the mixed signals county officials are sending out among themselves.
Supervisors approved the tobacco-sales ban without noting that the county pension system has an $8.7 million investment in tobacco stocks. That figure may be a mere 0.44 percent of the pension board's total investment — down from $13.4 million last year — but it sends the wrong message.
Though the Board of Supervisors has no say in pension board decisions and policies, it does appoint four trustees and it hires the county finance director, all of whom sit on the nine-member pension board.
Pension board officials themselves have said they are in the business of making money and they don't want social policies to hinder investment strategy.
We understand that position, and we realize delving into social policy can be a slippery slope.
But given the strong stand taken by Marin County and the millions of dollars invested into getting residents to stop smoking, we have to wonder:
Isn't it time both boards get on the same page?
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