Anti-smoking camp takes on Rite Aid

A California group is pressuring the state's largest pharmacy chain to stop selling cigarettes.

By Jon B. Rhine
Published November 10, 1999 1:00PM (EST)

The clamp on any smoking-related business may be getting cinched even
tighter in California, where a coalition of health advocates is demanding
that the state's largest pharmacy chain, Rite Aid, stop selling cigarettes
alongside medicine and sundries.

Timed to coincide with a media blitz that includes mobile billboards and a
hard-hitting New York Times ad, the campaign to force 600 California Rite
Aid drug stores to ban tobacco sales was launched at a strip mall in a quiet
neighborhood here Wednesday.

The negative campaign only compounded problems already facing the ailing
drugstore chain, whose stock price has plunged from more than $40 a share early this year to a Wednesday close of $8 amid
speculation that the company could be broken up. The Times ad, which reads,
"To help a persistent cough go to aisle 8. To get a persistent cough go to
aisle 14," won't bolster shareholder confidence.

The Pharmacy Partnership, the state-funded organization that launched the
campaign, is hoping to promote a nationwide movement among the company's customers to force the country's third largest pharmacy chain to discontinue cigarette sales.

"It's unconscionable and hypocritical that a family store that says it
promotes health should sell tobacco over the counter," Christine Fenlon,
director of the Pharmacy Partnership, said. "Alongside remedies for
influenza, colds and indigestion, Rite Aid offers its customers a dangerous
and addictive drug that kills, not cures."

An estimated 98 percent of chain drugstores across the nation continue to
sell cigarettes, according to the Pharmacy Partnership. According to a
survey conducted by the nonprofit group, 78 percent of independent pharmacy owners in California do not sell tobacco products.

So far, the Pennsylvania-based pharmacy chain, which nets an estimated 5 percent of its revenue from cigarette sales, has not issued a response to
the California group's challenge. However, in a letter from Rite Aid sent
to a member of the Pharmacy Partnership, executive vice president William A. Titelman called the campaign "grossly unfair."

In the letter, Titelman accused the California group of "singling out" Rite
Aid and suggested that members of the group had selected the failing company to play the "bad guy" in order to aid the publicity campaign.

Titleman defended his company's policy of selling cigarettes by reciting
its strict adherence to state age restrictions and willingness to post
signs with the surgeon general's health warning in stores.

A Pharmacy Partnership spokesperson said that in meetings with the pharmacy chain's management prior to launching the campaign, the company steadfastly refused to consider stopping the sales of cigarettes.

California, which has led the fight to prevent smoking in public, including
in bars and restaurants, may be setting a new trend in the increasingly
aggressive move to choke the supply of tobacco products in the state.
California voters already approved a stiff 50-cent cigarette tax with a
ballot initiative backed by Hollywood notables Rob Reiner and Charlton
Heston last year.

The latest move against the tobacco industry's distribution network comes
at a time when the industry is already reeling from a spate of multibillion-dollar judgments in successive legal battles in more than 40 states.

Industry analysts predict that cigarette-makers will respond by ultimately
passing along the costs of the mounting number of unfavorable and costly
legal decisions by imposing up to a 40-cent increase on each packet of
cigarettes. That -- along with a pending Supreme Court decision that could
grant regulatory control of tobacco products to the Food and Drug
Administration, effectively making cigarettes a drug, could severely limit tobacco use in the Golden State.

Enoch Ludlow, a spokesman for FORCES, a San Francisco nonprofit
organization dedicated to fighting what it calls irrational smoking bans, says he believes
that efforts to eliminate smoking entirely in the country are doomed to

"They would like cigarettes to be sold through government-approved outlets," Ludlow says of the effort to eliminate retail outlets like Rite Aid.

According to Ludlow, pressuring retailers like Rite Aid to stop selling
cigarettes could have the unwanted effect of stimulating an already nascent
black market by forcing consumers to seek out cheaper out-of-state cigarettes
being smuggled into the state.

Jon B. Rhine

Jon B. Rhine is a writer living in San Francisco. He has written for Time, Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

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