NORTH ANDOVER — The Board of Health has opted for friendly persuasion rather than coercion on the question of banning the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies.
The board voted unanimously last night to send a letter to the pharmacies that operate in North Andover asking them to consider discontinuing the sale of tobacco products.
"I'd rather ask than demand," Board of Health member Larry Fixler said. The panel discussed an outright prohibition against the selling of tobacco by drugstores last month.
Dr. Francis MacMillan, who supports such a ban, noted other Board of Health members are "somewhat hesitant to be coercive" about telling the pharmacies not to sell cigarettes.
MacMillan, a gastroenterologist who practices at Merrimack Valley Hospital, noted pharmacies are generally regarded as health-care facilities. Not only to they sell medicines, they sometimes administer vaccinations, he pointed out.
Yet they sell "a dangerous product" and MacMillan said that's "incompatible with their mission."
Fellow board member Joseph McCarthy made it clear he's opposed to smoking — but he's also opposed to "big brother" telling people what to do, he said.
It is still legal in Massachusetts for people over the age of 18 to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products, he noted. Actually, it's probably better for cigarettes to be sold at a pharmacy than other stores "because they have better control," he said.
A drugstore is likely to be stricter about checking IDs of customers than a convenience store, McCarthy suggested.
He also pointed out that there are some legal products, such as hand sanitizer, that people buy and drink because of their alcohol content. Should the board therefore consider barring drugstores from selling hand sanitizer, he wondered.
"Where does it end?" McCarthy asked. "I think we're opening a can of worms."
Dr. Thomas Trowbridge, chairman of the Board of Health, said using hand sanitizer to get high rather than for cleaning one's hands is "an abuse" of that product. As for tobacco, "There is no safe level of cigarette use," he said.
While McCarthy supported asking the drugstores to stop selling tobacco, he said he doubted they would comply. MacMillan said hospital gift shops voluntarily stopped selling cigarettes.
Tobacco is a highly addictive substance, MacMillan said. While 10 percent of people who drink alcohol become addicted to it, he said, 90 percent of those who light up get hooked.
Failure to "make a dangerous product less available," he said, would be an "abdication of our responsibility" as a Board of Health.
Fixler said it's possible some of the corporations that own pharmacies may be considering stopping the sale of cigarettes on their own.
"It could be some of the chains have it in the works," he said.
Trowbridge said he will write and send a letter to CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Stop and Shop, which operate pharmacies in North Andover. There are no longer any independent drugstores in town.
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