Legislation to expand San Francisco’s first-in-the-nation ban on tobacco sales by pharmacies moved forward in committee today, despite one owner’s concern that it would drive his corner store out of business.
After testimony by health officials and anti-tobacco advocates this afternoon, the Board of Supervisors’ three-member Land Use and Economic Development Committee agreed unanimously to send the ordinance–which adds grocery stores and “big box” stores with pharmacies to the ban–to the full board.
Nick Schoman, owner of Charlie’s, a corner drug store at 1101 Fillmore St. in the Western Addition neighborhood, asked the committee not to pass the legislation.
“Losing tobacco sales would cripple my business,” Schoman said.
Schoman said that when he opened his store in the low-income neighborhood in the 1980s, a stipulation of his liquor license was to have a pharmacy in the store. He said the store now provides a needed service to seniors who depend on it for their medication.
“How do I tell them that I can no longer fill their scrips?” he asked.
Schoman said he was given assurances by the city in 2008 that his store would be exempt from the ban, but when it passed, health officials informed him he had to comply.
He later won an appeal from the city, which agreed to include his store under the definition of “grocery store.”
Under the new legislation, Charlie’s would have to either stop selling cigarettes, which Schoman said account for 8 percent of overall sales, or close the store, he said.
“I’ve crunched the numbers,” he said.
The legislation passed in 2008 made San Francisco the first city in the United States to prohibit pharmacies from selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, under the premise that pharmacies specifically market themselves as health-promoting businesses.
Anti-tobacco groups have thrown their support behind the measure.
An exception in the law was made at the time for grocery stores such as Safeway and Lucky supermarkets and “big box” stores such as Costco.
Walgreen Co., whose San Francisco pharmacies were included in the ban, sued the city, arguing the exception was unfair.
Though a superior court judge dismissed the suit in December 2008, an appeals court earlier this year reinstated it.
The new legislation, sponsored by supervisors Eric Mar and Bevan Dufty, is an attempt to remedy that ruling, according to the city attorney’s office.
“We are trying to change social norms, and be even-handed as well,” Mar said.
Dr. Mitch Katz, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, addressed the committee today about concerns the legislation, which he called “courageous,” harms local businesses.
“It just has not borne out,” Katz said.
Katz said there were 64 commercial pharmacies in San Francisco when the law passed in 2008, and there are 65 today. The number of independent pharmacies, most of which no longer sell cigarettes, remains the same at 39, he said.
If the ban were to be expanded to grocery and big box stores, a total of 74 stores would be impacted, according to Katz.
“It does even the playing field,” he said.
Katz and other speakers argued that the legislation is particularly focused on making sure young children are not given mixed messages when they go to pharmacies.
“A pharmacy is a place you go to get healthy,” Katz said.
Schoman, however, worried that end result of his store closing would be that seniors in his community, many of whom, he said, have little money and walk to his corner store for medication, would now have to wait for a bus to one of the larger commercial pharmacies or go without. He asked the committee to postpone a decision in the hope that his situation could be resolved.
“I’m concerned that so much of your business is cigarettes,” especially in a low-income community, remarked committee chair Supervisor Sophie Maxwell.
Maxwell did say that she would be willing to meet with Schoman after today’s meeting to try to reach a resolution.
The full board is expected to take up the legislation next week.
Should the legislation pass the full board, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who introduced the 2008 legislation, will likely sign it, Newsom spokesman Tony Winnicker said.
“It’s a logical extension of the…restrictions, and likely something the court would require us to do anyway, to preserve the original ordinance,” Winnicker said.
Ari Burack, Bay City News