Health chief urges grocers to stop selling cigarettes

Supermarkets throughout New York found themselves being publicly spanked Wednesday by the state heal

Supermarkets throughout New York found themselves being publicly spanked Wednesday by the state health commissioner, who urged them to pull tobacco products from their shelves.

The Health Department and a host of consumer health advocacy groups ran separate full-page ads in several upstate newspapers, nudging grocers to “put public health before profits by kicking butts.”

While the supermarket industry spokespersons are used to such public critiques from advocacy groups, they were shocked to find Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines joining the anti-tobacco chorus.

“This is using our bully pulpit to persuade,” Daines said in a phone interview with The Daily Gazette.

The ads, which appeared locally in The Daily Gazette and the Times Union, mark a strategy shift for the Health Department. The agency also issued a news release in which Daines criticized supermarkets’ sale of cigarettes.

The Health Department, which Daines took over last year, has been stepping up its anti-tobacco initiatives. In recent months, Daines has urged movie studios to not include cigarettes in films geared toward teenagers. He also asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow New York convenience stores to sell nicotine replacement items at a lower price.

Daines wants to reduce the state’s ranks of smokers — now 2.7 million strong — by 1 million by 2010.

Daines said the $1.25 cigarette tax hike lawmakers have included in the state budget should prompt 100,000 people to quit smoking. The increase will make New York’s cigarette tax the highest in the nation at $2.75 per pack. But Daines’ latest anti-smoking initiative has its detractors.

“We’re selling products New York says is legal, and it’s a slippery slope when the government tells you what you should and shouldn’t buy,” said Jim Rogers, the president and chief executive officer of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, an Albany-based trade organization.

Rogers said it was “curious” the way supermarkets were singled out by the Health Department, which has no regulatory authority over that industry. He said the Health Department was acting “disingenuously and hypocritically,” especially since the agency recently worked with the supermarket industry in training cashiers not to sell tobacco products to minors.

“We’re encouraging food retailers    to not sell this toxic product. I don’t see any hypocrisy to it,” Daines said.

Judy Rightmyer, director of the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition in Troy, said her organization targeted supermarkets in its ad because some upstate grocers have already stopped selling cigarettes. Since January, three supermarket chains have announced plans to stop selling cigarettes: Wegmans Food Markets and Budwey’s Supermarkets in western New York and DeCicco Markets in the Hudson Valley.

It also seemed more reasonable to target supermarkets because tobacco is not as important to supermarkets as it is to convenience stores, said Rightmyer.

Mona Golub, a spokeswoman for the Rotterdam-based Price Chopper chain, said the latest anti-tobacco campaign pits the good intentions of some against the legal rights of others. She noted that Price Chopper two months ago started reducing the visibility of cigarettes in supermarkets by covering tobacco product kiosks with opaque sheets.

In November, the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition criticized area supermarkets for exposing children to colorful cigarette displays. Golub said the kiosk sheets address those concerns. The coalition is funded by the Health Department.

A spokesman for the Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford supermarket chain did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Categories: Schenectady County

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