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February 05, 2014 11:18 AM Smoker’s Ghetto Gets a Little Smaller

By Ed Kilgore

The announcement by the CVS pharmacy chain that by October 1 it will no longer sell cigarettes or other tobacco products had an air of inevitability about it, like the enclosed-public-place smoking bans that seemed exotic when first adopted by California in 1995 but that now prevail in 28 states. Interestingly enough, it seems the step was less a matter of taking a moral stand than of consolidating CVS’ status as a health-care provider, per this analysis from WaPo’s Sarah Kliff:

[B]y jettisoning tobacco products, CVS can further define its pharmacies as full-fledged health-care providers and strike more profitable deals with hospitals and health insurers. CVS stores already are home to more than 750 MinuteClinics, the country’s largest chain of pharmacy-based health clinics, offering flu shots and diagnosis of common ailments like ear infections and strep throat.

I often shock younger folks when I tell them that smoking in classrooms was generally accepted when I was in college (the professor in my very favorite undergraduate seminar, held in a small windowless room, used to walk in with a carton of Vantage cigs more often than not), while smoking in workplaces was quasi-universal. Frequent flyers surely notice the ashtrays in older planes. Smoking in the U.S. Capitol complex persisted for a long time, protected by Members from tobacco-producing states (I distinctly recall helping work out a deal on flood relief with staff of Senate appropriators in 1995 in the lobby just off the floor, and struggling to interpret the head gestures of Phil Gramm’s guy through the cloud of smoke he was emitting).

Nowadays smoking is increasingly expensive and inconvenient. Habits like tossing a cigarette butt on the ground are regarded as functionally equivalent to tossing trash into the street. Heavy smoking in period-piece TV shows (most notoriously Mad Men, where Don Draper’s family also once threw trash on the ground at the end of a picnic) and movies seems equivalent to Jim Crow and blatant workplace sexual harassment. And it seems anachronistic that the President of the United States still suffers from a nicotine addiction, while the Speaker of the House still fires up when he can.

The relatively mild backlash to the cumulative wave of anti-smoking laws, ordinances and private bans (would anyone light a cigarette in someone else’s home without explicit encouragement?), not to mention sanctioned discrimination by health insurers and employers and heavy legal settlements against the tobacco industry, probably means actual Prohibition will at some point become feasible. And the trouble to which tobacco addicts must increasingly go to indulge their habits—even as cannabis smoking becomes more acceptable—has to be having an impact on anyone wanting to live a normal life.

The CVS ban, particularly if it leads to similar bans by competitors, is another step towards the day when purchasing of tobacco products will happen in the equivalent of “head shops” where it’s available at all. And popular culture will follow, at least after Mad Men’s final season concludes.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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