Wednesday, July 30, 2008

San Francisco Bans Tobacco Sales in Pharmacies.

I see slippery slopes everywhere, especially when they involve people trying to force me to do what is best for me against my better judgment. That's why I pay attention when Chicago talks about enacting a mandatory spay/neuter program, even though I don't have pets. It's also why I complain about showboating legislators who demagogue about alcohol producers marketing to children, even though I don't drink Mike's Hard Lemonade. And it's why I pay attention when San Francisco decides to ban tobacco sales in drug stores, even though I don't smoke.

Some of the San Francisco Supervisors who pushed the ban predicted it will be a "first step" toward additional bans on the sale of tobacco in the city. Not surprisingly, Marin County can't wait to follow San Francisco's lead.

The law bans the sale of all tobacco products at pharmacies, including Walgreens and Rite Aid, but not at any other kind of store, including big-box stores like Costco and supermarkets like Safeway that also have pharmacies. The pharmacies, naturally, opposed the ordinance, citing basic fairness and the fact that pharmacies also sell smoking cessation products and pharmacists can give smokers advice about how to quit.

Anyway, that's just posturing. The real issue is the whole Nanny State idea. I've accepted the idea of banning trans-fats, because there was no reason to keep using them after it was determined that they are more harmful than saturated fats, but cigarettes are not comparable and are still a legal product. The idea that a city can take it upon itself to change that fact within its borders sounds like a Commerce Clause violation to me.

The now very broad smoking bans, like the one we have in Illinois, are rationalized primarily as protecting people from second-hand smoke. This is simply intended to make cigarettes harder to buy, and the fact that the mayor's spokesman could say the following should scare everybody. "A pharmacy is a place you should go to get better, not to get cancer." The Public Health Director expanded that thought a little further. "We teach our children that supermarkets and wholesale stores are places you go to buy everything. When it comes to pharmacies, I feel that our children and our teenagers get a different message." Of course, it's always all about the children.

What the article doesn't make clear is the mechanism San Francisco will use to enforce the ban. If Walgreens were to say, "screw you, you can't tell us what we can sell," what could the city do to them? When Chicago banned the sale of foie gras (no, really, they did), it was a ticket and a fine.

If you run any kind of business, think about where this could go. Think about the slippery slope. You're going to have city governments in the towns where your stores are located reviewing your merchandise selection and telling you what you can and cannot sell, based on what message the city government thinks that product is sending to children?

Let's leave indecent literature out of the discussion for right now, because of the additional First Amendment protection. What about selling clothing that the city government considers too revealing, or just too tacky? We want the children to learn good taste too, don't we?

Since cases have found that clothing can be expression, let's leave that out too. Let's go to the obvious next step, unhealthy foods. What if a city decides to ban the sale of ice cream above a certain butterfat percentage, or requires that restaurants not sell any individual meal that contains more than 2,000 calories? Or bans the sale of soft drinks altogether.

Not possible?

Lots of things seem impossible until they happen. That's why you have to look out for the slippery slope.

No comments: