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As tobacco disappears from shelves, local smokers shrug: 'I'm supposed to be quitting anyway.'

As tobacco disappears from shelves, local smokers shrug: 'I'm supposed to be quitting anyway.'

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Drugstores and other retailers that house pharmacies will no longer be able to sell cigarettes and e-cigarette products in Erie County. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Cigarette packs and vaping tools will come off the shelves at drugstores and some grocery and big-box stores within three months in Erie County.

County Health Department officials have pledged to aggressively enforce a law passed Thursday by the County Legislature and to fine any pharmacy retailer that doesn't pull the products.

That suits Phillip Torres just fine.

"Let them ban 'em," said the Buffalo resident, who walked out of a Rite Aid with two new packs of Newports. "I'm supposed to be quitting anyway."

Not everyone is so complacent about the sweeping anti-smoking law that will force pharmacy retailers from Walgreens to WalMart to pull all its tobacco and e-cigarette products 90 days after the law becomes official. The new law has been derided by some as containing nanny-state regulations that could eventually target the sale of candy and alcohol.

The County Legislature unanimously approved the Public Health Protection Act, despite a few misgivings.

In addition to the pharmacy retailer ban, the law forbids adults from smoking in any car where minors are present and bans smoking in or around bus shelters.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a vocal supporter of the legislation, has pledged to sign it.

"I am confident that this law will lead to improved health outcomes for Erie County residents and cleaner air for all,” he said in a statement.

Pulled over for smoking? It might happen in Erie County

Unlike the car and bus shelter smoking bans, expected to be passively enforced by police, the ban on tobacco sales at any retailer that houses a pharmacy will be actively enforced, said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein.

The Health Department has already completed 620 compliance checks since April to make sure that cigarette retailers are not selling tobacco products to minors, she said. Enforcement of the tobacco sales ban will not require additional resources, she said.

Any pharmacy retailer or health care institution that sells tobacco and e-cigarette products after the 90-day grace period will be fined $300 to $1,000 for a first offense and $500 to $2,000 for repeat offenses.

"Any kind of legal action that limits the sales of any kind of nicotine-containing products, including at pharmacy retailers, we know is going to result in some kind of decrease in use by adults, and more importantly in youth," Burstein said.

Some legislators called the pharmacy retailer ban an example of government overreach.

"I take issue with telling private businesses that they cannot sell something that is legal," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, D-West Seneca.

But Legislature Chairman Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, said there's no comparing the sale of cigarettes to alcohol and candy.

"There is no such thing as 'responsible' smoking," said Savage, a co-sponsor of the law.

It is unclear how much of an effect the new law will have on pharmacy retailers. Stores like Target, CVS and Wegmans have voluntarily given up the sale of these products. And even drugstores that sell cigarettes do so less conspicuously, often selling cigarettes alongside rows of anti-smoking aids.

"For those tobacco users who choose to quit, our pharmacists are available to counsel on smoking cessation and the variety of products available to make quitting easier," said Rite Aid spokesman Pete Strella.

Neither Rite Aid nor Walgreens took a position on the new county law.

"We have no stance on the proposed legislation, so long as it treats all retailers that operate pharmacies equally," said Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn.

The trend toward banning tobacco products from pharmacy retailers has gained steam on the East and West coasts, beginning with San Francisco, the first major city to pioneer the law in 2008. New York City and Rockland County passed laws banning cigarette sales at pharmacy locations last year. Albany County joined them in May.

The push to ban tobacco and nicotine products at Erie County's pharmacy retailers began when Poloncarz proposed the idea in 2016. Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, introduced a law to ban smoking in bus shelters last December. And Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, introduced a measure to ban smoking in cars in the presence of children in January. Savage combinee the three measures into a single law.

Health advocates at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Tobacco Free Western New York wholeheartedly endorsed the law at legislative committee meetings and public hearings.

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

Even some smokers expressed support when they spoke with The Buffalo News after buying cigarettes at drugstores this week.

Torres said he was already on the nicotine patch and wasn't supposed to be smoking at all. He's cut back. If he can't buy cigarettes when he makes other drugstore purchases, it'll make quitting easier, he said.

A woman who walked out of a local drugstore with a pack of Marlboros said she's been a smoker for 25 years and used to smoke one-and-a-half packs a day. She "quit" five weeks ago, she said, but her latest pack of cigarettes is the third or fourth pack she's snuck since then. The woman works for a state health agency and declined to give her name.

She went into the store to pick up a six-pack of beer, but when she saw the cigarettes behind the register, she impulsively bought a pack. She considers the new county law  a good idea.

"Anything to deter me," she said.

When CVS voluntarily stopped selling cigarettes in 2014, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that cigarette sales dropped by 1 percent in 13 states where CVS had a market share of tobacco sales. But a more recent study by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that while the New York City law has reduced tobacco retailer density in communities overall, poorer neighborhoods saw the least change because so many other neighborhood retailers carry the products.

One smoker, who walked out of a Buffalo drugstore with windshield wiper fluid and pack of cigarettes, said he didn't see the new law changing his cigarette-buying habits.

"There are a lot of places around here I could buy them," he said.

Read the law here:

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