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Pharmacies should promote health, not tobacco

When customers walk in to the Rite Aid pharmacy at the corner of Hopkins and Dodge roads in Amherst, they see cigarettes among the most prominently displayed products. The shelves are stocked with several brands of cigarettes, and the specials are prominently promoted.

Alongside the cigarette display, Rite Aid also promotes tobacco cessation products. So, customers can pick up their prescriptions and buy cigarettes and a smoking cessation kit all in one place. This situation is unfortunately not unique. Retail pharmacies, selling medicines, flu shots and shampoo, are major purveyors of tobacco.

This Rite Aid pharmacy is located across the street from Williamsville North High School and Casey Middle School. Although the signage indicates that tobacco will not be sold to minors under 18 years, those minors see prominent promotion of tobacco at the same place where they and their families get their medicines. What message are they receiving? We are concerned that they are being encouraged to overlook the clear danger of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Customers rely on pharmacists for education about how to take their drugs and the benefits and side effects of those drugs. Thus, although the pharmacist in the back of the store is a professional dedicated to protecting their health, the store is promoting a highly addictive and toxic -- and deadly -- product. This bizarre conflation of health promotion and health destruction may lead adults as well as middle and high school students to overlook the massive evidence that cigarettes and other tobacco products kill people early.

What's wrong with commercial pharmacies trying to make money by catering to the wishes of their customers who want to buy cigarettes? Cigarettes are legal and are sold widely -- so why not at local pharmacies?

The reason is simple. Pharmacies, in the business of promoting health, cannot do that and sell tobacco. It's like selling beer at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or doughnuts at Weight Watchers.

We ask that pharmacies stop selling tobacco. By doing so, they will validate the trust of their customers and document that they are partners in promoting health. This is exactly what Wegmans did when it stopped selling tobacco a few years ago.

If, as a customer, you don't think pharmacies should be selling tobacco, let the manager and the pharmacist know. And, to the pharmacist: Your good work at the back of the store is antithetical with what's being promoted in the front. You need to speak up, too.

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Brahm H. Segal, M.D., is head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Stephanie R. Segal is a smoking cessation associate at the New York State Smokers Quitline. James Marshall, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at Roswell Park.