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Sweeping anti-tobacco law picks up support from Erie County lawmakers

A proposed Erie County law that would make it illegal for drugstores to sell cigarettes or e-cigarette products appears to have enough bipartisan support to be adopted next month.

The law would also prohibit smoking in a vehicle if a child is a passenger.

Lighting up in or around bus shelters would also be illegal.

Health advocates have rallied around the Public Health Protection Act, the most sweeping anti-smoking legislation seriously considered by the County Legislature in over a decade. The proposed law — a collection of three distinct measures individually introduced over the years — has drawn support from health and student advocates at committee meetings and public hearings over the past several weeks. But some legislators and others in the community have misgivings and see the proposal as an example of government overreach. They have also raised concerns about enforcement.

Most of conversation about the proposal has focused on a provision making it illegal for any retailer housing a pharmacy to sell tobacco or e-cigarette products. That proposed ban, introduced by County Executive Mark Poloncarz in early 2016, would affect a range of businesses, from small family-owned pharmacies to big-box retailers like Wal-Mart.

The proposed law would fine pharmacy retailers up to $2,000 for selling the banned products.

"When you think about pharmacies, those are places for public health," said Legislature Chairman Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, one of three co-sponsors of the law. "It's common sense — you should not be selling cancer medication, or making cancer medication available to those who need it, and then sell the products that feed it."

Advocates from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center pointed out during a public hearing Thursday that New York City, Albany and Rockland county have already banned cigarette sales at pharmacy locations. So have cities like San Francisco and many communities in Massachusetts.

When San Francisco first banned tobacco products from pharmacies in 2008, lawmakers were forced to tweak the law to withstand legal challenges. Since then, more communities on the East and West coasts have signed on. In New York State, it wasn't until 2017 that Rockland County and New York City banned cigarette sales at pharmacy retailers. The New York City ban will affect all pharmacy retailers by January.

A recent study by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that while the new law has effectively reduced tobacco retailer density in communities overall, poorer, disadvantaged neighborhoods saw the least change.

Maansi Bansal-Travers, an associate professor of oncology at Roswell Park, said 865 tobacco retailer licenses were issued in Erie County in 2016, and 15 percent of those licenses were issued to retailers with pharmacies, mostly national chains.

"Selling tobacco products and e-cigarettes in pharmacies alongside medicines and health products perpetuates misconceptions about their popularity and acceptability, while minimizing their significant risks to health," she said.

Poloncarz wants pharmacy retailers banned from selling tobacco products

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, a West Seneca Conservative Party member, said that while he opposes smoking, he has concerns about a bill that supersedes the principles of personal responsibility and places more stringent regulations on businesses. He noted that drugstores also sell alcohol, suntan lotion and candy, which have all been tied to adverse health conditions. He and other legislators questioned where to draw the line.

Cheektowaga resident Anthony Kunz, speaking at the public hearing, denounced the proposed law as "another nanny state regulation" and asked if the Legislature was prepared to ban candy from drugstores because it contains refined sugar. And Buffalo resident Michael Lee defended e-cigarette products as healthier alternatives to tobacco cigarettes.

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, pointed out that in communities like his that border another county, businesses could lose patrons if they are restricted in what they can sell while businesses in the other counties are not.

Health advocates say tobacco products cannot be compared to other drugstore items.

"Our position is that giving people cancer as part of your business model is not a good idea," said Roswell Park Vice President Laura Krolczyk.

"We can't put this in the same category as alcohol," she said. "This is the largest cause of cancer globally."

More people at the public hearing expressed general support for the idea of banning smoking in cars if children are passengers as well as a ban at bus shelters, though enforceability is considered a weak spot in the legislation.

Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, introduced the law to ban smoking in cars where children are present in January. Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, introduced a law to ban smoking in bus shelters last December.

Children in cars with smoking adults breathe in the same or higher concentrations of pollutants as those living near the California wildfires, said Mark Travers, director of the Air Pollution Exposure Research Lab at Roswell Park. He also pushed back against arguments regarding personal responsibility and infringement of personal rights.

"It shouldn't be our goal to protect people from the ability to harm children," he said.

Pulled over for smoking? It might happen in Erie County

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