Thousands of people have signed a petition demanding B.C. join other provinces across Canada in banning the sale of tobacco in pharmacies and stores with pharmacies.
B.C. is the only province or territory in Canada that allows tobacco to be sold in drug stores after Manitoba banned such sales in 2013.
“B.C.’s continuing to allow tobacco sales in pharmacies is highly inappropriate,” Dr. Stuart H. Kreisman, a St. Paul’s Hospital endocrinologist and member of the Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said in an email.
Smoking opponent Leo Levasseur said he collected 7,000 signatures on an online change.org petition but sent only the ones from people who lived in B.C., about 800, to Health Minister Adrian Dix last month.
He reminded Dix that when he was health critic in 2014, he called on the previous Liberal government to “come forward into the 21st century and not allow the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies.”
“What happened since then?” said Levasseur. “What made him change his mind?”
In a response to Levasseur’s petition, B.C.’s health protection branch acknowledged there is no provincial or federal law prohibiting pharmacies from selling tobacco, but said “as part of our continued focus on reducing the prevalence of tobacco and vapour product use, the ministry of health is undertaking an assessment of tobacco and vapour product sales in B.C. pharmacies.”
Dix didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday and the health ministry didn’t provide any details of the assessment.
More than six years ago, the College of Pharmacists of B.C. had proposed a new bylaw that would deny a licence to pharmacists working in pharmacies where tobacco was sold.
The heads of retail chain pharmacies and stores with pharmacies in a letter threatened to sue the college for overstepping its authority with such a ban. The signatories included the head of London Drugs and Rexall as well as grocery stores with pharmacies, such as Safeway, Overwaitea, Thrifty Foods and Sobeys.
The college is now not banning tobacco sales, a spokesman for the registrar said in an unsigned emailed statement.
It dropped a proposed ban in 2014 because it’s the provincial government’s role to regulate the sale of tobacco products, as has happened in other provinces, according to the email.
It’s not known how many of B.C.’s 1,000 pharmacies continue to sell tobacco. A spokesman for Rexall said on Thursday the chain stopped selling tobacco three or four years ago. The other main pharmacy chains, including Shoppers Drug Mart and Pharmasave, no longer sell cigarettes.
London Drugs is the last remaining drug store chain that continues to sell tobacco, said Levasseur, who doesn’t represent an anti-smoking group but has been fighting for seven years to get pharmacies banned from selling tobacco on behalf of three loved ones with lung disease caused by smoking, including his father, who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease a year ago.
He sent a letter to London Drugs chief operating officer Clint Mahlman questioning how the chain could sell cigarettes and offer free advice on how to quit smoking, which he called “so hypocritical.”
“Why is a drug store selling cigarettes?” Levasseur said. “Why are you selling something that is one of the biggest killers in the country?”
“Tobacco use causes up to 6,000 deaths in the province each year, killing more people than all other drugs, motor vehicle collisions, murder, suicide and HIV/AIDS combined,” according to a B.C. government website.
Levasseur said he objects to pharmacies profiting from cigarette sales and also accepting tax money for cessation programs and aids.
Malhman was out of the office until next week and unable to comment, said a public relations firm that replied to a request for comment.
“We’re the last province doing this (allowing pharmacies to sell tobacco),” said Jack Boomer of the Clean Air Coalition. “It sends a message to people that it’s OK to purchase tobacco.”
He and Levasseur said they have heard the argument that allowing smokers to purchase their tobacco at pharmacies increases the chances they will approach a pharmacist for information about quitting.
But Boomer said if a shopper purchases cigarettes at the front till he won’t be in contact with a pharmacist or a quit smoking message.
Levasseur said he urges the government to announce an end to pharmacy sales of tobacco in time for World No Tobacco Day on May 31.
B.C. has the lowest per capita smoking rate in the country, at 11.1 per cent, compared with the national average of 14.8 per cent and a high of 19.5 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to 2019 Statistics Canada figures.
Banning tobacco sales from pharmacies can reduce the number of outlets selling tobacco and therefore exposure to tobacco marketing and purchases, according to the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco website.
It said studies show that in California cities where the practice was banned, tobacco retailer density decreased 1.44 times more than cities without such policies, during the first five years.
In the U.S., San Francisco became the first city, in 2008, to adopt a tobacco-free pharmacy law. The Walgreens pharmacy chain and tobacco giant Philip Morris lost a court challenge against the law.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story misspelled Leo Levasseur.
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