Worcester pharmacists find themselves on front lines of tobacco battle
By Noah R. Bombard
Garry Levitsky is – in a very literal way – sitting at the crossroads of a political firestorm.
In the front corner of his Main South pharmacy is a glass cabinet chock full of cartons of cigarettes. From in front of that cabinet at 810 Main Street you can peer across the corner to 817 Main Street, the home of Main South Discount Liquors, which sells the same product for a few cents more. In a few months Levitsky may not be able to sell those cigarettes. The customers who used to come into his store for them will walk across the street.
“First of all, everybody should understand that any regulations that could ever be put in place for the safety of kids and even adults, I’m obviously in favor of,” says Levitsky, the second generation owner of Beacon Pharmacy. “I’m not here to make people worse. The problem I have for this particular new regulation is it’s not going to have any positive results. They’ve done nothing with this regulation other than curb the sale of cigarettes from a few places both big and little and they’re forcing them to walk across the street.”
The regulation Levitsky is talking about is the city’s proposed tobacco sale ordinance, which the City Council is poised to approve April 26. In addition to banning the use of tobacco advertisements that can be seen from the street, it bans the sale of all tobacco products at pharmacies within the city – CVS, Rite Aid, Walrgreen’s, Walmart. It will knock tobacco sales out of 26 establishments in all, including family-owned pharmacies like Beacon, which serves the struggling, working-class neighborhood of Main South.
Of course, it was a different world than when Levitsky’s parents Harry and Gertrude “Jinks” Levitsky opened Beacon Pharmacy 73 years ago. Smoking was in. Back then cigarette distributors paid Beacon for merchandising. The cigarette brands came with large displays and marketing. A pharmacy selling cigarettes made sense. After all, according to the advertisements, your doctor recommended them.
Times have changed. Tobacco companies have paid out millions in class action lawsuits and the anti-tobacco movement is pushing hard to fight back the influences of big tobacco.
That’s where a group of youth from the HOPE Coalition in Worcester come in.
“It took us four years to do this,” says Laurie Ross, coordinator for HOPE in Worcester.
She’s worked with the youth of the coalition for that long to come up with a plan to try to battle the city’s alarming smoking rate. The youth examined various ordinances across the country aimed at curtailing tobacco sales and worked with the city solicitor to draft an ordinance that finally landed before the City Council this month. It’s the kind of civic involvement among youth that politicians dream about. On April 12, when the ordinance came up at City Council, the youth flooded the chamber, pleading to councilors to listen to them. When it became clear last week that the ordinance had the votes to pass – at a slim 6 to 5 vote on the pharmacy ban – it was a watershed moment for the youth.
“The next day, we had our meeting and one of the kids spontaneously baked a cake. It was a victory cake,” Ross says.
They felt they had been heard. They felt that they’d made a difference.
Facts Stacked Against Tobacco
Throughout the debate, no one has advocated in favor of smoking. That battle was won in the public consciousness some time ago. The days of everyone from doctors to Santa Claus endorsing cigarette brands as “good for you” or “fresh” are long gone. And the facts stacked against tobacco are overwhelming. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 400,000 people die each year from diseases caused by smoking. More than 8 million suffer from smoking-related illnesses. Smoking costs our public and private health care systems $96 billion annually. It’s a product that kills. And according to the CDC it kills more than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined. That’s nationwide. In Worcester, it’s worse.
When city Public Health Commissioner Dr. B. Dale Magee ran off a list of tobacco-related statistics to the City Council earlier this month the numbers were startling. One in three people in the city die prematurely, Magee told the council, and the vast majority of deaths are due to cardiovascular disease and cancer related to smoking. The highest percentage of smokers is between the ages of 18 and 24. The city’s smoking rates are where the state average was 20 years ago, Magee said.
From his view out his Main South pharmacy, Levitsky has his own theory on why that is. It’s based on what he sees on a daily basis.
The [people] that move into Worcester, in this neighborhood especially, Main South, you have a huge abundance of rooming houses, community houses, residential programs,” Levitsky says.
He says some of the people he sees in his Main South store have medical issues that may involve compulsion or obsession. It’s a population that smokes. He doesn’t argue that they shouldn’t stop. In fact, Levitsky says most of his sales occur in the first few days of the month when monthly support checks go out. These aren’t people with money to spend on cigarettes, but they do anyway. They’re addicted. They go to Beacon because Levitsky sells cigarettes at the state minimum – he has packs for $1.39 that are going for $1.99 elsewhere. For many anti-tobacco supporters, that makes his store part of the problem. But Levitsky argues when he stops selling, they won’t stop buying. They’ll go next door and pay 60 cents more to someone else. He’s frustrated.
“This regulation is not going to solve anything,” he says.
Unlike a Honey Farms representative who told the City Council earlier this month that a ban would likely mean the closure of one of its stores, Levitsky says the ban won’t shut him down. It won’t shut Park Avenue Pharmacy down either. Park Avenue owner Scott Najarian argues he and people like Levitsky are being singled out, however, and penalized for a problem that they claim they are a minor part of. And for a small business trying to make ends meet, having the city knock a product off their shelves while keeping it on the shelves of the store next door is – from their point of view – just not fair.
“People ask us how we survive with a CVS next door and I think to myself, they’re not the problem,” Najarian says. “It’s things like this. I think city government is creating a problem that we didn’t have before. I’m not worried about what CVS is going to do. I’m worried about what my local government is going to do.”
A City Ban
In discussions over the tobacco sale ordinance, one suggestion keeps coming up – a complete ban of tobacco sales across the board in the city. It would, as most anyone who has brought it up has said, be landmark. Perhaps too landmark.
No one in the U.S. has done this. Instead, cities across the country have been inching forward with ordinances that seek to ban sales near schools, ban them from certain areas or restrict sales in some other way. A complete ban would be a giant leap – some argue an impossible one. Then again, someone reading a “More doctors smoke Lucky’s” ad 40 years ago probably wouldn’t have dreamed you could one day be fined for lighting up in a public building.
“We would love to do a ban outright of tobacco, of course,” Ross says. “But that is not possible at this moment.”
She says the coalition recognized that support-wise, the city just isn’t there yet. That realization led to the ordinance before the City Council now.
“There’s no opening for that,” she says. “Where the opening is, is in extending the health care institution aspect.”
Cigarettes are no longer sold in hospital gift shops as they used to be. In fact, you can’t smoke near a hospital or a health care facility. The ordinance the coalition presented, Ross says, is an extension of that – moving the smoking bar one step further.
Both Najarian and Levitsky say they would rather deal with a city-wide ban, although like city councilors who brought it up earlier this month, neither say they’d necessarily support it. City Councilor Michael Germain said the same thing to the council while arguing against the pharmacy ban, saying the discussion would be more sensible than picking out a few stores. Levitsky and Najarian say it would at least level the playing field.
“If they really have an interest in public health, why didn’t this council stand up and make a name for themselves across the United States of America and say, ‘We are not going to allow the sale of cigarettes in the city of Worcester?’” Levitsky says. “I would respect them much more. I wouldn’t agree with the regulation, but at least then I would say, ‘Wow, these people are really trying to do something for the city of Worcester.’”
To Najarian, a city-wide ban, while eliminating tobacco sales, would mean he wouldn’t lose any customers.
“If they banned tobacco citywide, it wouldn’t have any impact here,” Najarian says.
That’s because Najarain says what he’s worried about with the pharmacy ban is that he’s going to lose customers to one of three other stores in the neighborhood that will remain unaffected. There’s a 7-Eleven across the street from him.
“We have people who are accustomed to come here on a daily basis just to buy a lottery ticket or a pack of cigarettes and they’re just not going to come here,” Najarian says. “And they’ll never come back again.”
If that argument rings a bell, it’s because it was the same argument that was made more than a decade ago when individual cities and towns in the commonwealth discussed smoking bans at restaurants and other public places. Restaurant owners argued a ban in one city or town would just send customers a few miles up the road to the next town over. In 2004, that problem was solved when the legislature passed a state-wide smoking ban on all enclosed public places. The restaurant in the town next door? You couldn’t smoke their either.
There’s another aspect to the tobacco sale ban that hasn’t received any public discussion: inventory. And for locally-owned pharmacies, that’s more of an immediate problem.
Levitsky estimates Beacon has between $5,000 and $10,000 of cigarettes in stock at any given time. Once a ban goes into effect, Levitsky can’t sell them. He can’t sell them back to the distributor and he doesn’t have any stores outside the city to ship them to. He’s stuck with them. So is Park Street Pharmacy, which Najarian estimates has between $4,000 and $5,000 in inventory.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do with all of this,” Najarian says. “At a chain pharmacy [they can] just send it to another one in another state without any problem, the same with a supermarket.”
Most likely, both pharmacists say, they’ll just have to throw them out. The destruction of thousands of dollars worth of tobacco products would be both a symbolic and tactile move for those working to combat smoking in the city. For a small business, however, the loss of a several thousand dollars in retail products is a bitter pill to swallow. There’s also the issue of the tobacco sale permits the pharmacies paid for. The yearly $150 permit fee is a minor expense, but Levitsky says that again, it’s the principal. He’s paid for a permit that he’ll get less than half a year out of. There has been no mention at City Council to refund permits or pay retailers for lost retail products.
If the ban passes City Council – at the last vote to advertise the ordinance councilors voted 6 to 5 in favor – Levitsky and Najarian will take their cigarettes off the shelves. So will dozens of businesses in the city that have pharmacies – including Walmart and many supermarkets that have pharmacies. The question of whether cigarette sales within the city – and by correlation, smoking itself – will decrease remains something that all sides seem poised to watch.