San Francisco's Tobacco Ban Challenged In Court

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A judge in San Francisco will decide Tuesday if the city has a right to enforce a new law that bans the sale of tobacco in pharmacies. Drug store chain Walgreen Co. and tobacco company Philip Morris have filed suits against San Francisco. If the ban is successful, it could catch on in other cities.


Today, a San Francisco judge decides whether to stop the city from enforcing a new ordinance that bans the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies. Tobacco giant, Philip Morris, and the Walgreens drugstore chain are both suing San Francisco. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, other cities considering similar bans are keeping an eye on this case.

RICHARD GONZALES: There's a real problem selling cancer-causing cigarettes in the same place that sells products to enhance life, says Dr. Mitch Katz, director of San Francisco's Public Health Department.

Dr. MITCH KATZ (Director, San Francisco's Public Health Department): I feel very strongly that when you go into a pharmacy, which is a health-promoting business. You go under the awning that says 'the pharmacy America trusts,' and then you see cigarettes being sold, that's a mixed message. And the message is that smoking can't be that bad. After all, they sell cigarettes in pharmacies.

GONZALES: San Francisco's ban on the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies is set to go into effect, Wednesday. But pharmacy chain, Walgreens, has asked a local judge for an injunction. The chain has 52 full service stores with pharmacies in San Francisco. Spokeswoman Tiffany Bruce says the ban is discriminatory because it exempts pharmacies in grocery and big buck stores.

Ms. TIFFANY BRUCE (Spokeswoman, Walgreens): First and foremost, the ordinance lacks basic fairness. It penalizes a few trusted retailers while unfairly benefiting others.

GONZALES: The San Francisco ban faces another legal challenge. The second one is a federal law suit brought by tobacco giant, Philip Morris U.S.A. Its spokesman, David Sylvia, says the company has a first amendment right of free expression to sell its products.

Mr. DAVID SYLVIA (Spokesman, Philip Morris U.S.A.): We believe the purpose and effect of the ordinance is to suppress the communications directly to adult smokers, which is in violation of our constitutional rights. Likewise, the ban unfairly deprives adult consumers of the opportunity to buy tobacco products from legitimate licensed retail businesses.

GONZALES: Federal judge, Claudia Wilkin, has denied Philip Morris has request to strop the ban from going into effect. But she did agree to hold a hearing on its suit in late October. Outside one of Walgreens stores, opinion of the ban seems to follow one's habit. Cameron Conwell(ph) works in a dry cleaners next to a Walgreens on Polk Street near Russian Hill, and he's outside taking a smoking break.

Mr. CAMERON CONWELL (Dry Cleaner Employee): Honestly, I mean, I think it's stupid because basically, you can't get cigarettes there. You just have to walk across the street and get cigarettes over there. So, what the hell's the difference? Excuse me. What's the difference? ..TEXT: GONZALES: Conwell points across the street to a tobacco shop that presumably would pick up business if smokers couldn't get cigarettes at Walgreens. However, the shop owner declined to comment. Back in front of the pharmacy, even some ex-smokers like Jennifer Roache(ph) wondered whether the ban goes too far.

Ms. JENNIFER ROACHE (Ex-smoker): No, the only thing that would be my concern is if minors were buying. But it seems like - I mean, it's certainly not as easy as it was for me when I was a kid. You know, when you could go to a vending machine, or people didn't really care. So, that's my opinion. I just think its overregulation. ..TEXT: GONZALES: Still, Public Health Director Mitch Katz says if the ban on selling cigarettes in pharmacies is successful here in San Francisco. It could catch on in other cities. In fact, the Boston Public Health Commission has given preliminary approval to a similar measure that outlaws tobacco sales in grocery store pharmacies and on college campuses. Richard Gonzales, NPR News San Francisco.

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