NORTH ANDOVER — Right now, you can go to a pharmacy and buy life-saving medicines, such as Lipitor or similar drugs that lower cholesterol.
In that same pharmacy, you can also purchase products that have the potential to kill you: cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco.
That paradox may be outlawed in North Andover if the Board of Health votes to impose a ban on the sale of tobacco products in drugstores.
The board discussed enacting such a prohibition last night.
"My concern is for the children," said Dr. Louis Fazen, a pediatrician who heads the Massachusetts Medical Society's Committee on Public Health. "Most smokers start at a young age."
Fazen said half a million deaths each year can be "directly attributed to tobacco." Ninety percent of smokers start the habit when they are younger than 18, he said, and one-third won't be able to quit. "The majority of adult smokers would give it up if they could," Fazen said.
Twenty-five communities in Massachusetts, including Springfield, have already voted to ban tobacco sales in pharmacies, said Fazen, who is chairman of the Southbridge Board of Health.
Dr. Frank MacMillan, a Board of Health member, said permitting the sale of cigarettes in a pharmacy makes it seem like a "regular" practice. Yet a pharmacy is considered a health-care facility because pharmacists advise customers on how to take their medication, he said.
MacMillan noted many independent pharmacies have voluntarily stopped selling tobacco products. North Andover has five pharmacies, all owned by chains: two CVS, a Walgreens, a Rite Aid and a Stop & Shop.
Board of Health member Joseph McCarthy said many of the food products sold in pharmacies are not considered healthy because of their high content of sugar and/or salt.
"I'm glad we're not going to vote on it tonight," he said. As for the likelihood of a drugstore tobacco ban reducing smoking, McCarthy said, "I don't know if it would matter."
He pointed out smokers will buy their cigarettes someplace else. If it can be shown that prohibiting pharmacies from selling tobacco products will reduce smoking, McCarthy said he would support it.
Dr. Thomas Trowbridge, chairman of the board, said, "This isn't going to solve the problem, but it's a small step in the right direction. If we can stop one kid from smoking, we will have accomplished our goal."
Boards of health have the power to enact regulations that safeguard health. Many local health boards began prohibiting smoking in restaurants several years ago.
"Just because we can do it doesn't mean we have to do it," Board of Health member Larry Fixler, a retired pharmacist, said. Fixler expressed some concern about singling out drugstores in ordering a tobacco ban.
Trowbridge said a proposed regulation banning the sale of tobacco products by pharmacies may be presented to the board at its next monthly session.
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