Responding to a request from the county's public health officer, the Hollister City Council on Monday directed its staff to amend city code to add a section that prohibits the sale of tobacco in pharmacies. The matter will come back before the council at a future meeting for a public hearing and vote before it can be enacted.
"Tobacco costs us more than we can afford, both in health and dollars," said Dr. Anju Goel in encouraging the prohibition. "It remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States." She noted that since they are a place that people go to seek treatment and care, selling tobacco products "contradicts the mission of pharmacies."
Goel noted that three of the seven pharmacies in San Benito County have decided to cease the sale of tobacco products, including Nob Hill Foods, which stopped sales as of Feb. 1. She said that of the other four pharmacies, "several are in discussion" at the corporate level about whether to stop tobacco sales. If the council amends its existing municipal code to ban the sale, the tobacco retail license will be changed so that all current and future pharmacies will be prohibited from selling all forms of tobacco.
"It's not a policy asking people in San Benito to stop buying tobacco altogether," Goel said, noting that people could still buy cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and other such products at stores without pharmacies, such as liquor stores.
Councilman Victor Gomez said that "you can't really legislate morality; you can't legislate habits," and asked Goel what the educational component of the proposed ban would be. "You don't want to just ban cigarettes," he said.
Goel said that the health department is "attempting to make our pharmacies operate in a manner that's consistent with their mission, which is to promote health and wellness."
When Gomez pointed out that pharmacies sell other items that are "not very healthy," such as Twinkies, Goel pointed out that nicotine is "dangerous in any amount," whereas sugar and alcohol are not as much of a health concern when consumed in moderation. "Tobacco is something in which no level at all is known to promote health."
In a survey of 336 residents, in which they were asked if they'd support a tobacco-free pharmacy policy, Goel said 80 percent responded in the affirmative. Eighty six percent of respondents said they would still spend their money at those pharmacies if they stopped selling tobacco products. She noted that Hollister could take the lead on this issue if it enacts a tobacco sales ban for pharmacies, as no other county on the Central Coast has such rules in place. The issue was not brought before the county board of supervisors, she said, because there are no pharmacies outside of the Hollister city limits.
More than a half-dozen speakers addressed the issue during the public comment period, including students from San Benito High School who held up signs encouraging tobacco-free efforts.
Marvin Jones, a frequent commenter at council and county board of supervisors meetings, said that he worked in tobacco fields as a youngster in Kentucky and quit smoking more than 40 years ago. While his father died of lung cancer, Jones said banning pharmacies or other businesses from selling legal products such as tobacco is a "slippery slope. Is alcohol going to be next? No, we've tried that one." He closed by telling the council, "Don't go down this road."
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez pointed out that there was an outcry decades ago when smoking was banned in restaurants. "Can you imagine going into a restaurant now where someone is smoking next to you?" he asked. "You wouldn't put up with it." He believes that he damaged his lungs as a youth hanging out in a bowling alley hustling pinball. "If we can take a step to make things better," he added, "I think it's time we start making that change."
Councilman Gomez, noting that customers should have free will like they did when he sold more than 100,000 pizzas in 10 years of owning a local Papa Murphy's pizza franchise, said he understood the perception of hypocrisy when pharmacies sell tobacco. He said it was akin to McDonald's selling salads or someone "eating a Big Mac with a Diet Coke." While he said he doesn't like to "restrict business," concerns about his own children being exposed to tobacco were enough for him to support a ban on pharmacies selling those products.