Op Ed: Massachusetts is first state in the nation to prohibit tobacco and vaping sales in pharmacies
By D.J. Wilson
Tobacco Control Director/Public Health Liaison, Massachusetts Municipal Association
With the start of 2019, tobacco control advocates throughout Massachusetts are celebrating. As of Dec. 31, 2018, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to prohibit health care institutions, including pharmacies, from selling tobacco and vaping products. Thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Charlie Baker last July, these addictive products will no longer be sold in facilities that are dedicated to health and wellness – facilities that often treat illnesses and diseases caused by these very products.
In order to protect the public from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, it is crucial to limit the number of places where people are exposed to these enticing and addictive products. This is especially true for youths and for smokers who are trying to quit. Reducing the density of tobacco retailers in a municipality is a key strategy for preventing youth nicotine addiction and helping users quit.
Over the past decade, 180 Massachusetts cities and towns, including the seven largest cities in the state, have banned the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies in their communities. Countless residents and local decision-makers supported this action with written and verbal testimony before boards of health, city councils and town meetings.
This movement started 10 years ago in Boston, when the Boston Public Health Commission banned the sale of tobacco in “health care institutions,” and more than 75 pharmacies in Boston could no longer sell tobacco. Tobacco control advocates across the state waited to see how the changes would be received in the city and whether there would be any legal challenges, but the change went smoothly.
Over the next two years, Boston was joined by seven other municipalities, representing 13 percent of the state’s population. Dedham and Everett deserve credit for being the first municipalities in the state to enact the pharmacy ban and addressing the specific issues unique to big box stores that were also subject to the sales ban.
The road was not always smooth. Many municipalities chose to go slow or to decline this policy out of concern about legal challenges, economic hardship for independent pharmacies, or damage to their pro-business reputation. Yet no legal challenges or signs of significant economic disruption appeared. Few could make the argument that businesses dedicated to health and wellness should sell tobacco.
As time went on, banning the sale of tobacco and vaping products in pharmacies seemed less controversial. When pharmacy bans were proposed in additional municipalities in every region of the state, affected businesses did not raise substantial objections at public hearings. And when bans were passed, pharmacies complied without incident. By 2014, hundreds of CVS stores in Massachusetts no longer sold tobacco products due to locally enacted sales bans. In September 2014, CVS Health voluntarily became the first national pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco products in all stores nationwide.
Eventually, through local municipal action, 80 percent of the state’s population lived in communities where tobacco and vaping products were no longer found in pharmacies. Now, thanks to legislative action, the entire state is now protected in this way.
Even as we face new challenges in preventing and reducing nicotine addiction, tobacco control advocates have much to celebrate. Youths in Massachusetts no longer see tobacco products behind the drugstore counter, and smokers who are trying to quit can avoid the visual triggers that result in cravings to smoke.
By removing tobacco and vaping products from pharmacies in Massachusetts, we continue to use public policy to change the environment that people live in. Through grassroots local initiatives that lead to legislative action, we take a giant step toward improving the health and wellness of the Commonwealth and reducing the medical and economic burden of tobacco.