In what must be a sign that public health advocates are making big gains in the legal and PR battles against Big Tobacco, news today that the biggest cancer purveyor in the U.S., Philip Morris, has taken the City of San Francisco to court over a new bylaw banning sales of cigarettes in pharmacies.
The company argues the ban is unconstitutional because it suppresses its rights to communicate with its consumers – cigarettes are not illegal and drugstores are licensed retail sites. The response from the city falls in line with a public health argument to protect and prevent all citizens from disease and to promote healthy environments. In short, we shouldn’t have to encounter promotional materials for products we know to be harmful in an environment that is supposed to promote health and well-being.
Of course, these issues are never so cut and dried. With pharmacies turning into grocery stores, grocery stores into clothing stores, and clothing stores into coffee bars, the lines that once separated clearly appropriate from inappropriate retail sites for products like cigarettes and alcohol are becoming increasingly blurred. Walgreen’s, for example, has intervened claiming it would lose millions of dollars, equal to 9 percent of a store’s non-pharmacy sales, if the ban takes effect. It argues the ban unfairly targets drugstores because grocery stores like Safeway, which profess to market a “healthy lifestyle” but also sell pharmaceutical and tobacco products, are exempt.
It’s surely a sign that the ban is a threat to the tobacco industry’s bottom line. Under normal circumstances, companies in the business of sin, sickness and ethically problematic activities would never go to court and risk intensifying public discussion and heightening awareness about the negative public health implications of their product – remember the case of Nike v. Kasky. Indeed, Mitch Katz, the City’s director of Public Health, calls it “a badge of honor … to be sued by Philip Morris.” I would be surprised if Philip Morris loses this one – but the legal struggle is likely secondary in importance to the public relations battle for the public health sector.
This case will be interesting to follow, because of the possible precedent it may set (only hours after news of the San Francisco case emerged, the Boston Globe reported that Beantown may be next) and certainly because it’s very likely to generate a contentious debate about the effects of first- and second-hand cigarette smoking. Light up folks – this one will go on for some time.