Beyond Menthol, Lawmakers Look to Ban Cigarettes at NJ Pharmacies
TRENTON – In addition to a ban on menthol cigarette sales in New Jersey, state lawmakers are considering whether to entirely eliminate tobacco sales at pharmacies.
The proposed menthol ban was endorsed by the Assembly Health Committee last Thursday in a party-line vote. But that progress doesn’t guarantee its approval, as a similar bill got that far in 2018 before stalling. Also, the Senate health committee isn’t taking up its version at its meeting today.
But the Senate panel is scheduled to vote on a bill barring some pharmacies from selling tobacco products, as is done in some cities in California and Massachusetts. The Assembly committee took testimony on the idea last week but didn’t hold a vote.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said if there is less access to nicotine, fewer people take it up and use it.
“And that inures to saving lives, protecting health and reducing costs certainly to individuals and families but to government as well,” he said.
'Supposed to be health-care outlets'
Conaway noted CVS stopped selling tobacco but says flavored cigarettes still compete with Chunky bars as impulse buys at other pharmacies “that are supposed to be health-care outlets, that serve as a very important and unfortunate access point for people to obtain these killing devices.”
Walgreens and Rite-Aid are reportedly considering ending tobacco sales. And Mary Ellen Peppard, assistant vice president for government affairs for the New Jersey Food Council, said even without the law there’s a transition underway among some local pharmacies choosing to halt cigarette and vape sales.
“Marketing and advertising are obviously very different now,” Peppard said. “It is very regulated. I want to say it’s very much at the point of sale, behind the counter, age-regulated, age-controlled.”
Peppard said the Food Council doesn’t oppose the version of the bill pending in the Senate, which includes a provision that exempts a department store or food retailer that is licensed to operate as a pharmacy practice site or that leases space on its premises to a third party for the operation of a pharmacy practice site.
Menthol ban advances, despite criticism
The proposed ban on menthol cigarettes in New Jersey cleared its first hurdle in the Legislature, though only after a lengthy hearing in which everyone who spoke on the bill, other than the lawmakers who voted for it, was opposed.
Charles Giblin, who used to run the state Treasury Department office that enforced cigarette laws and now represents Altria Client Services, part of the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes, predicts that a ban would cause a jump in cross-border smuggling and counterfeit products.
“That will fill the gap created by this new prohibition in what makes the 44.5% of the legitimate cigarette market,” Giblin said.
Wait for national action?
David Gardner, owner and operator of Starkman Distributors in Atlantic City, said the state should not act separately from a planned federal ban on menthol cigarettes to avoid problems. Conaway says that could take five years, though Gardner says it’s more likely to take effect within in two years.
“If it happens on a national level, not so much. Everybody’s on the same playing field,” Gardner said. “But when it happens just to us, to one person or one group of people, it’s going to be a problem.”
The proposed ban has good intent but amounts to a prohibition that’s bound to fail, said Jiles Ship of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. He warned of an underground economy in which people traffic unregulated tobacco into New Jersey and sell it on city streets.
“And subsequently there’s going to be people calling police because people are selling cigarettes and tobacco in their communities,” Ship said. “And we’re going to have to respond.”