Saturday, September 13, 2008

Yes, We Have No Tobacco

There's an old joke of sorts that goes something like this:

Why do sick people have to walk all the way to the back of the pharmacy to buy medicine when healthy people can get cigarettes in the front?

Legislature passed in San Francisco in July might make this joke completely unintelligible to the next generation. But drugstore giant Walgreens is throwing a fit.

The ban, which is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, doesn't extend to grocery stores or big-box stores that also have pharmacies. That's why the company wants the plan stopped, said Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffani Bruce.

In short, Walgreens thinks it's unfair for Meijer, Wal-Mart, Target, and various other grocery store chains that have tacked pharmacies onto their business in recent years to continue selling cigarettes if they can't.

The reasoning here gets kind of weird. Walgreens is claiming that somehow it's more appropriate for cigarettes to be sold at pharmacies than at grocery stores because pharmacies offer a greater opportunity for patient contact with pharmacists. Pharmacists, as they continually remind us in school, are as responsible for public health as any other health care professional. The logic is apparently that a patient buying cigs at Walgreens, Rite-Aid, or CVS is more likely to have an encounter with their pharmacist during the same trip. During this encounter, the pharmacist is expected to "do the right thing" and encourage the patient to quit if given the opportunity.

Huge logical flaw: I would wager that only a small percentage of customers at my workplace who are buying cigarettes are also there to talk to a pharmacist. It's true that sometimes customers come in to pick up both meds and smokes, but the items are sold at different check-out counters, which means that a great number of cigarette purchasers never speak to a pharmacist. And even buying your smokes at the pharmacy check-out doesn't guarantee you're going to talk to a pharmacist. He or she is probably too busy making sure Mrs. Johnson isn't going to inadvertently get a lethal dose of digoxin or calling some doctor who forgot to write an actual dosage on Mr. Smith's prescription.

In other words, your chances that a pharmacist is going to swoop in like Superman and rescue you from yourself are very slim. So much for the idea that it's somehow healthier to have cigarettes in pharmacies than in grocery stores.

I don't know what message Walgreens' lawyers are trying to send, but here's how I read it: We all know cigarettes are unsafe, but if you're going to buy them, you should at least buy them somewhere where someone might try to talk you out of it. So they carry cigarettes in hopes that you will encouraged to quit buying cigarettes. What? Do they really expect us to believe that?

I think the ban sends precisely the right message. Why? It's all about public perception.

Most customers at your typical big-box store will never use its pharmacy component. The pharmacy is an afterthought; the stores were not built to be pharmacies, they simply contain pharmacies, much the way that they occasionally contain lawn and garden sections or automotive departments. The pharmacy is there to complete the one-stop-shop set. Business moves like Wal-Mart's $4 generic initiative make it pretty clear that the big-boxes don't actually expect to make a lot of money running pharmacies. The pharmacy is a way to get you to do your other shopping at their store. It is a lure, like the dangling light of an angler fish.

There's nothing inherently altruistic about today's corner drugstore, but I'd wager that there's a reason the big-boxes have had to resort to bargain-basement prices to get people to use their pharmacy services--the corner drugstore just "feels" better to the consumer. They're smaller and feel more focused. The message from the corner drugstore is that pharmacy is the purpose of their existence. The drink case, the cigarettes, and the greeting cards are for your convenience. It's more like the store is attached to the pharmacy than the pharmacy is attached to the store. (This isn't exactly true, given the history of corner drugstores in America, but we're talking about consumer perceptions, not truth.)

So if you take the cigarettes out of grocery stores, people are going to throw a bloody fit. They'll spew all kinds of vitriol about the nanny state and freedom of choice. And, to some degree or another, they'd be right. No, you don't have an inherent "right" to buy cigarettes, but cigarettes are sold, and a broad ban on cigarette sales would provoke a lot of rage. Even most non-smokers would say that the government had gone too far.

Conversely, if you take cigarettes out of drugstores, a few people are going to complain about the inconvenience--smokers, of course--but everyone else is likely to congratulate you for reinforcing the notion that the drugstore is a place where medicine and health care are the number one priorities. Can you imagine a doctor's office with a cigarette vending machine in the lobby? Nevermind the fact that cigarette vending machines have gone the way of the dinosaurs--most people would find the notion appalling these days. (This is, of course, a product of changing culture. It wasn't long ago that doctors had no problem endorsing their favorite brands, and pharmacists were no less guilty of "promoting" smoking.)

The corner drugstore isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days of pharmacists doing double duty as soda jerks. The modern pharmacy is trying to become an arm of the healthcare system, not just "a store"--and eliminating cigarette sales goes a long way toward reinforcing that idea.

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