When the media reported earlier this year that giant drugstore chain CVS had announced that it would stop selling tobacco products, it appeared to be a sudden, independent, and ethically responsible business decision. In fact, there is important background and subtext. Activists and policymakers in many areas have been working tirelessly under the radar for many years to persuade drugstores and drugstore chains to stop selling cigarettes. They deserve recognition.
While I read the news, one of Steve Earle’s songs began to play in my consciousness. In the introduction to “Christmas in Washington,” Earle talks over a repeating bell-like guitar chord progression in E-flat about individuals like Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman, and Illinois Governor George Ryan who “could have been in this song” because they exemplified courageous, honorable behavior. We all know the kind of people Earle refers to; they share common character traits. They are the stubborn ones; principled, unyielding, and fearless; the ones who won’t back down or sell out. Often characterized as nutcases, zealots, or just plain “pains in the ass,” these are the folks who stand in front of tanks and refuse to move to the back of the bus. They march and picket and sit-in. They go to jail rather than compromise principles or betray comrades. They don’t shy away from confrontation with priests, judges, and presidents; they are not put off by scorn, ostracism, or penury. The reason that the CVS news brought Earle’s monologue and song to mind is that I have had a passing virtual acquaintance and e-mail correspondence with just such a person; one who could have been in Earle’s song.
Terence Gerace “Could Be in This Song”
In mid-July 2010, Dr. Terence Gerace initiated a personal campaign to shame CVS into stopping the sale of tobacco products. He spent long hours each and every day picketing CVS drugstores in Washington, DC. His one-man picket lasted at least 149 days. I am certain that most of the thousands of passers-by who stopped to talk with Gerace on his solo picket line felt that his was a fool’s errand. This is America after all; an unrepentant corporatocracy where CEOs rule the roost and giga-companies buy elections and virtually employ politicians who routinely stonewall legislation in the public interest. They knew that crusaders rarely succeed; Michael Moore does not prevail over General Motors. Gabby Giffords cannot convince her colleagues to pass rational gun laws.
But Gerace was not deterred by the impossibility of his goal, nor did he heed admonitions regarding its futility. He kept up his lonely demonstration against CVS week after week in sweltering Washington, DC heat.
When not picketing, he posted to a Web site explaining why CVS should stop selling tobacco products and even wrote a song on the subject.
It is tempting for me to report that this David laid Goliath low single-handed, but such is not the case. In reality, committed activists have been hectoring drugstores about tobacco sales for decades.
As best I can determine, the tobacco control community first decided to go after pharmacy chains after the discovery of correspondence between Rite Aid and Lorillard executives and the Council for Tobacco Research revealed that Rite Aid had been working behind the scenes to defeat legislation that called to raise the age for purchase of cigarettes in the state of Maryland. “Rite Aid,” noted a New York City Consumer Affairs report, “has the worst rate of recidivism: 24% of the Rite Aid locations inspected by the Department of Consumer Affairs sold tobacco to minors a second time.”
Anne Landman is another admirable gadfly, one of the few journalists to have taken on drug chains—and my former boss—in her blogs. She reported how the Pharmacy Partnership, a California coalition, ran an ad in the New York Times in 1999 directing Rite Aid customers: “To help a persistent cough, go to aisle 8. To get a persistent cough, go to aisle 14.”
Christine Fenlon, director of Pharmacy Partnership, said, “Alongside remedies for influenza, colds, and indigestion, Rite Aid offers its customers a dangerous and addictive drug that kills, not cures.”
Eckerd Drugs has also been targeted by tobacco control organizations. Lisa Sarasohn reported that, in 2000, the company fired Elizabeth Estes after she refused to train employees to upmarket customers by urging them to double up on cigarette purchases. In Sarasohn’s opinion, Estes’s “refusal to engage in pushing an addictive, lethal drug demonstrates her courage and her moral character.”
1. Gerace TA. Toxic Tobacco Law. http://www.toxic-tobaccolaw.org/13news.shtml. Accessed July 11, 2014.
2. Radziejewski J, Mullin S; New York City Department of Health Office of Public Affairs. New York City consumer affairs commissioner Gretchen Dykstra and city health commissioner Tom Frieden slam Rite Aid and the rest of the “filthy fifty” cigarette vendors. http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/press_archive02/pr16-403.shtml. Accessed July 11, 2014.
3. Landman A. Another sickening partnership: the CEO of City of Hope profits from causing and curing disease. The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch. http://www.prwatch.org/news/2008/12/8022/another-sickening-partnership-ceo-city-hope-profits-causing-and-curing-disease. Accessed April 14, 2014.
4. Sarasohn L. Eckerd fires tobacco foe. Mountain Xpress. http://mountainx.com/opinion/0228sarasohn-php/. Accessed July 11, 2014.
5. International Pharmaceutical Federation. FIP statement of policy. The role of the pharmacist in promoting a tobacco free future. http://www.fip.org/files/fip/news/tobacco-final2.pdf. Accessed July 11, 2014.
6. Bickerweg A. Tobacco-free pharmacies. International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP). http://www.fip.org/tc_tbactivities. Accessed July 11, 2014.
7. The Lung Association, British Columbia. Make BC pharmacies tobacco‐free urge leading BC health advocates. http://www.bc.lung.ca/mediaroom/news_releases/nr_15_2011.html. Accessed July 11, 2014.
8. Lumpkin B. Activists targeting sales of cigarettes. The Berkeley Daily Planet. http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2001-07-26/article/6034?headline=Activists-targeting-sales-of-cigarettes--By-Ben-Lumpkin-Daily-Planet-staff. Accessed July 11, 2014.