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Poloncarz wants pharmacy retailers banned from selling tobacco products

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz wants Erie County to be the first county in New York State to ban pharmacy retailers from selling cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

“The sale of cigarettes is incompatible with what pharmacies are supposed to do, which is help individuals deal with illnesses and diseases,” Poloncarz said Friday.

Health advocates applauded his proposal, but pharmacists like Dan Rinehart and other business people consider the move just another hit to their bottom line.

“If it became law we would certainly stop selling cigarettes, but it would hurt us to some extent,” said Rinehart, who owns Dexter Leader Drugs on Jefferson Avenue at East Ferry Street.

Not being able to sell cigarettes would be a burden for his small independent pharmacy, which sells cigarettes in its checkout area.

“We might have to eliminate one position,” he said.

Such a ban would affect a major swath of businesses, from family-owned pharmacies to big-box giant retailers like Wal-Mart.

Poloncarz expects industry and retail lobbyists to exert pressure to keep the proposal from becoming law.

“I am not folding,” Poloncarz said.

“Think about this,” he said. “Someone can go into a retail establishment that has a pharmacy, go back to the pharmacy to get a prescription drug to deal with issues that are related to their smoking, and then go to the front of the retail establishment or pharmacy and buy cigarettes. It makes no sense.”

Other counties in California and Massachusetts have enacted similar legislation.

The industry pressure against his proposal would be great here because Erie County would be the first in New York State, and lobbyists would not want such tobacco restrictions to gain a foothold.

“Erie County needs to lead on this,” Poloncarz said. “Like we lead on the clean air act, like we lead on the microbead act, we need to lead on this. And I guarantee you, once it’s passed, it’s happening across the rest of New York State, too, because we’ve seen it happen with every other law.”

San Francisco became the first major city to ban the sale of cigarettes and related tobacco products from retail stores with pharmacies in 2010. Since then, other California communities and many more in Massachusetts have enacted bans. At least one county in Minnesota has also passed similar legislation.

Most Canadian provinces ban the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies, with Ontario becoming the first to do so in 1994.

Locally, some pharmacy retailers have voluntarily stopped selling tobacco, including CVS, Target and Wegmans.

County Legislator Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, will sponsor Poloncarz’s proposal in the Erie County Legislature. Savage pointed out that the Legislature gave bipartisan support last year to a law that banned the use of e-cigarettes and vaping in all public indoor facilities.

“The Legislature has demonstrated a strong commitment to public health,” he said.

Legislature Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, however, said he expects extensive debate in committee and during public hearings. He also said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were threats of legal action and selective enforcement accusations by retailers.

“I think it’s going to cause a serious conversation,” he said.

In response to community efforts elsewhere to curb the sale of tobacco products at pharmacy retailers, tobacco industry defenders and retailers have said this type of legislation provides some retailers an unfair advantage over others, hurts businesses who are selling legal products, and unnecessarily inconveniences consumers.

CVS reported a multibillion-dollar loss in general sales when it stopped selling cigarettes at its pharmacies, though CVS pharmacy revenue was robust last year.

Health advocates praised Poloncarz for trying to make it harder to buy cigarettes and similar products.

“I’m so enthusiastic about this,” said Dr. Martin Mahoney, professor of oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Any step to “denormalize” the use of cigarettes and tobacco in society is a step toward saving lives, Mahoney said.

He said 3,000 deaths a day in the nation are attributed to tobacco use.

“Pharmacies are considered centers of health and wellness,” he said. “It’s inconsistent for a place that promotes health and wellness to be providing very easy and ready access to tobacco products.

“The more difficult you can make it to access tobacco, it stands to reason, one or two or three people are going to use this to say, ‘You know what, this just isn’t worth it anymore,’ ” he said.

Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said tobacco products are heavily associated with heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases – leading causes of death in Erie County.

In Erie County, 19 percent of adults are smokers. Though cigarette smoking has been on the decline, e-cigarette use has been on the rise, particularly among young people, according to the Health Department.

“Tobacco has no place being sold in the same locations where the victims of these diseases pick up their medications to fight to save their lives,” she said.

Stephen Giroux, pharmacist and owner of Transit Hill Pharmacy, said many local pharmacies stopped selling cigarette and tobacco products 20 or more years ago because it conflicts with the pharmacy’s mission of being a provider of health services.

But not all local pharmacies have. Rinehart, owner of Dexter Leader Drugs, said he sells cigarettes along with candy, beer and lottery tickets in his front store area to remain competitive. He acknowledged, however, that selling cigarettes carries its own headaches.

Cigarettes have become so expensive – costing over $100 a carton – that they have become a highly targeted item for theft.

“I’ve had problems internally and externally with that over the years, and the higher the prices go, the more risky it gets,” Rinehart said.

A limit on the sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes at pharmacy retailers would still leave a majority of retailers free to sell such products in Erie County.

Anthony G. Billoni, director of Tobacco-Free Western New York, said that if the county enacts the law, it would likely effect 100 out of 900 cigarette retailers locally. But that’s worth something, Billoni said, especially given all of the marketing and advertising exposure young people see in the check-out lines.

Patrick Coyne, smoking outside a Tops Markets store on Niagara Street, said it would be an inconvenience if the supermarket no longer carried cigarettes.

But other smokers say they don’t expect any trouble finding cigarettes elsewhere.

“That wouldn’t affect me at all,” said Ramiro Gonzalez, outside the Walgreen’s at Delaware Avenue and North Street in Buffalo. “I get them at the Indian Reservation. They’re cheaper there.”

email: stan@buffnews.com and msommer@buffnews.com