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Activists targeting sales of cigarettes

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Thursday July 26, 2001

As part of a statewide campaign to get pharmacies to stop selling tobacco products, members of the Berkeley Tobacco Prevention Coalition are pressuring local “chain” pharmacies to remove cigarettes from their shelves. 

While some area residents support the move, others doubt it will have much of an impact. 

“We never have (sold cigarettes) and we never would,” said Barryl Glover, a pharmacist at the Milvia Prescription Pharmacy in Berkeley. “It sends a negative health message (that’s) counter to what we’re trying to do, which is promote health.” 

Ron Freund, a member of the Berkeley Tobacco Prevention Coalition, said pharmacies have a “social responsibility” to send a message that tobacco products are harmful by refusing to sell them in the same setting as products that are supposed to promote good health. 

Pharmacies selling cigarettes “leaves an impression that legitimizes tobacco and the selling of tobacco,” especially with youth, Freund said. 

“The more institutions and organizations begin to say tobacco is unhealthy and basically a bad product, the less opportunity there will be to buy it,” he added. 

The California group Prescription for Change, a coalition of pharmacists, physicians, health care professionals and consumers, has worked with local anti-tobacco groups since 1995 to convince pharmacies that there is a profound contradiction in selling cigarettes and health care products in the same store. 

But, while most independent pharmacies in the state either never carried tobacco products or have stopped carrying them in recent years, almost all chain pharmacies continue to sell cigarettes and cigars. 

None of Berkeley’s 11 independent pharmacies sell tobacco, but all of its five chain stores (four Walgreens and one Longs Drug) do, according to Prescription for Change spokesperson Sue Noseworthy. 

Prescriptions for Change launched a “media blitz” this spring – including a prominent advertisement in this newspaper and half-a-dozen other Bay Area publications – to bring attention to the discrepancy between independent and chain store policies regarding tobacco. 

“Our campaign is raising awareness with consumers to really even think about the issue,” Noseworthy said. “With the independents maintaining their clients and customer satisfaction, it seems like there really isn’t any reason that the chains wouldn’t be able to do the same.” 

In 1998, cigarettes, cigars and matches accounted for only 2.6 percent of all products sold in on an average day in a chain pharmacy, according to Prescription for Change. 

Ed Fernandes is manager of a Walgreens store on South San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley which does sell cigarettes. He said the store sells maybe 20 cartons of cigarettes a month, at the same time that it’s selling Nicorette – a product that helps smokers break the habit – like hot cakes. 

“There’s a ton of people trying to quit,” Fernandes said. 

Fernandes said the decision to sell or not to sell cigarettes is made at the corporate rather than the local level. Officials at Walgreen’s West Coast corporate offices did not return calls asking for comment Wednesday.  

In a February e-mail addressed to Freund, one Walgreens official pointed out that 25 percent of the U.S. population smokes, adding: “Walgreens sells tobacco products as a convenience to our customers.” 

Customers leaving the San Pablo Avenue Walgreens Wednesday had mixed views on whether the store ought to sell tobacco. Emeryville resident Paul Castleman said it’s a no-brainer that a place known for health care products should stop selling cigarettes. 

“Police don’t sell guns,” Castleman said.  

If a pharmacy chose to stop selling cigarettes, he said, “It would increase the professional stature of the pharmacy, I think, as well as send a subtle message.” 

But Berkeley resident Gretta Fletcher disagreed. 

“If you’re talking about Walgreens, Walgreens is more of a variety store, like Target,” Fletcher said. “If it were strictly a pharmacy selling medicine, then I would have a problem with it.”  

Fletcher, a 30-year smoker who resorted to hypnotism to quit, was also skeptical that persuading pharmacy chains to stop selling cigarettes would help cut back on the smoking rate. 

“It’s a terrible addiction,” she said. “You have to be able to face it wherever it’s at to quit.” 

Oakland resident Abe Kirschenbaum, 28, agreed that pharmacy stores should stop selling cigarettes, but he wouldn’t stop there. 

“A cigarette is probably one of the worst things you can do for you’re health,” Kirschenbaum said. “If it were up to me they would get cigarettes off the street completely. But in a free country, that’s a pretty strong opinion.”