Brookline bans tobacco sale in local pharmacies

Communities nationwide have been taking action to de-normalize tobacco

By mid-February, tobacco will be off the shelves of every Brookline CVS and Walgreens with a pharmacy. The CVS Pharmacy on the corner of Cypress and Washington Streets, a short walk from the high school, has already removed cigarettes from behind the counter.

According to Selectman Richard Benka, the ban will be successful in eliminating the contradicting messages coming from Brookline institutions whose primary mission is health.

Senior Alex Coelho supports this most recent development.

“Why would you sell a death product to people you’re trying to help?” said Coelho. “It makes no sense.”

Brookline Town Meeting passed the ban unanimously and is now awaiting approval from State Attorney General Martha Coakley, who will ensure it violates no state laws. This part of the process is largely formality, as the ban has been already passed in 19 other Massachusetts communities, including Boston, Needham and Newton.

Years ago Brookline was the first town in Massachusetts to ban tobacco in public facilities, and changes like this have happened all over the country, as communities nationwide have been taking action to de-normalize tobacco.

Tommy Vitolo, a Brookline resident, had the idea for writing the warrant article for this ban. He believes it does not make sense for tobacco products to be sold in places like pharmacies where people go for sound medical advice.

“If you decided to quit smoking because your doctor says you have lung cancer or emphysema and you need to stop smoking or else it will get worse, then every time you go to the drug store to get your medicine, you have to walk past that giant display of cigarettes,” said Vitolo. “It allows people who need to use the pharmacy to not have to go through that.”

Vitolo sought help in writing the article from DJ Wilson of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and Brookline Town Counsel Jennifer Dopazo-Gilbert. The Brookline Board of Selectmen eventually reviewed it and demonstrated unanimous support.

“We are very fortunate here to have such a forward-thinking Town Meeting and Board of Selectmen,” said Alan Balsam, who has been Director of Public Health and Human Services in Brookline for the past 15 years.

In the process of the warrant article’s approval, concerns were raised about the ban’s potential consequences. Some wondered whether it would put pharmacies out of business.

This concern was investigated thoroughly, and cigarettes actually make up a very small percentage of the profit margin of drugstores, according to Vitolo.

In addition, members of an advisory committee involved in the review of the article worried that liquor stores which continue to sell tobacco will encourage smokers with alcohol dependencies to buy alcohol. A number of the pharmacies where tobacco sales will be barred are close to these liquor stores.

“I voted for the ban, feeling that it will likely be beneficial to public health on balance,” said Benka. “But it will be important to monitor how it plays out in practice.

A wine store will soon be opening immediately next door to the CVS near the high school.

“It will be interesting to see whether that wine store sees a market opportunity and decides to offer tobacco products,” said Benka.

Some students do not believe the ban will make an impact on teenage smoking.

“I don’t care,” said freshman Joseph Gonzalez. “People are going to get cigarettes anyway.”

While acknowledging that the ban may affect older Brookline residents, senior Jake Richards also believes that it will not influence students.

“I don’t think it matters because the gas station is like 10 feet away,” said Richards.

Although this ban is not making drastic changes, it reduces the impact tobacco has on the community. Public health experts think there will be less uptake and fewer people who start smoking if it becomes less normal.

“Few people in Massachusetts smoke, few Americans smoke, and fewer than in the past, certainly,” said Vitolo. “It is abnormal in the sense that if you do it as directed, you’ll kill yourself.”

An employee of the CVS on Cypress Street, who asked to remain anonymous due to company policy, had similar thoughts. She said that as a pharmacist, she would like to promote healthy lifestyles but that young people will still manage to use tobacco even if they have to go slightly out of the way.

Convenience stores such as 7-Eleven will not be affected by this new law. Balsam said that although he is not opposed to other places being banned from selling cigarettes, “We will take it one step at a time.”

Vitolo expressed reservations about focusing too much on tobacco-related issues rather than the expansion of Brookline schools, for example. According to Vitolo, Brookline could be sued for taking business away from cigarette companies, which are prepared to spend a lot of money on lawyers.

Regardless, the new law will affect both adults and children of all ages.

“I’m glad about this. I used to be a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer,” said Officer Deborah Hatzieleftheriadis of the Brookline Police Department. “I hate to see all these kids out here smoking, so the least amount of access they have, the best.”

Rohan Lewis and Jackie Merrill can be contacted at [email protected]