Attorneys General Pressuring Stores to Stop Selling Tobacco Have Learned Nothing

Published March 26, 2014

Are ducks smarter than government lawyers? We should wonder.


I once watched and listened to a little white duck peck out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a toy piano at my local county fair. I later talked to the duck’s owner. He said it took a lot of repetitions with food pellets on the right keys, but after some time the duck began pecking at the right keys in the proper order. It learned from experience.


This apparently is more than many attorneys general can do. Twenty-eight of them (including from Guam and Puerto Rico) recently sent a letter to chief executives at five big retailers – Wal-Mart Stores Inc., grocery store operators Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc. (which run pharmacies), and drugstore chains Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp. – asking them to stop selling tobacco products in their stores. The attorneys general complain the retailers should not sell tobacco products when their stores also promote health and healing.


“Pharmacies and drug stores, which increasingly market themselves as a source for community health care, send a mixed message by continuing to sell deadly tobacco products,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement after the letter was sent.


Punishing taxes, sales restrictions, and outright bans have failed to stop people from getting anything they’ve wanted badly enough. The attorneys general apparently have been unable to learn this lesson.


Back in Colonial days, “Smuggling was so institutionalized in the Boston merchant community that merchants were able to buy insurance policies to cover them in the event of seizure,” writes Peter Andreas, author of Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America  (Oxford University Press, 2013).


Alcohol Prohibition after the First World War actually drove people to consume stronger alcoholic drinks, ushered in organized crime, and spawned a surge in political corruption and criminal violence. The drug war since the 1970s has done much the same, and government statistics show the level of substance abuse over these decades has gone essentially unchanged. Not even state and federal prisons are able to stop inmates from buying, selling, and using illegal drugs.


Now more than half the nation’s attorneys general are pressuring chief executives of some of the nation’s biggest retailers to remove tobacco products from their store shelves, as if it would make any difference in the level of consumption. Removing tobacco products from those stores would no doubt increase tobacco sales at other stores. It would also would no doubt lead to more smuggling.


Schneiderman must know New York already has tried “prohibition through taxation” by imposing the nation’s highest taxes on tobacco products. The result: New York State has the nation’s highest rate of cigarette smuggling, according to the Mackinac Center’s latest report on cigarette smuggling, released in February. Nearly 57 percent of the cigarettes consumed in New York are smuggled, according to Mackinac. Make it still more difficult for people to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products, and they’ll no doubt look for more illegal alternatives to get around the problem.


Certainly Schneiderman and the other arm-twisting attorneys general (including those in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, and Ohio) know these stores sell alcoholic beverages and prescription drugs that are abused by millions of persons, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, illnesses, and injuries every year. Why such focus on tobacco when abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol also causes so much loss and misery?


The parent company of CVS Pharmacies recently announced it would pull tobacco products from its pharmacies’ shelves by October. If CVS management believes it’s worth ceding that business to the company’s competitors, fine. Walgreen Co. announced it has made the opposite decision. That’s their call.


But it should be no business of government lawyers who have the implicit threat of bullying governments behind them. They should concern themselves with upholding the law, and the law allows the sale of tobacco products.


If the law ever bans the sale of tobacco products, the result is predictable: failure to stop tobacco consumption, just as Prohibition failed to stop alcohol consumption and the drug war has failed to stop drug abuse. It’s too bad 28 highly educated attorneys general apparently have learned nothing from the nation’s many failed attempts to stop people from getting the things they want.


Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.