“In the fall of 2008, San Francisco polished its progressive credentials by banning something. From October 1, 2008, the sale of cigarettes was prohibited in certain places. You could still buy them in convenience stores, of course, and bodegas, gas stations, and even the occasional bar. But the city thought that perhaps it was a bad idea to allow them to be sold in pharmacies. As the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, put it: “Consumers — and especially young people — should reasonably expect pharmacies to serve their health needs, not to enable our leading cause of preventable death.”
Pharmacy and tobacco executives were apoplectic. The Walgreens pharmacy chain argued that they needed to be allowed to sell cigarettes so that they might counsel people on how to quit. The tobacco industry was upset too. From the hallowed garden of constitutional law, it argued that the ban was an infringement of its First Amendment rights to free speech. Big Smoke argued that it was being muzzled by an over-reaching government marching down the road to tyranny. The judge who heard the case took a dim view of this logic, pointing out that while advertising is a form of free speech, “selling cigarettes isn’t.” The ban continues.
The cigarette industry survives, as does its advertising. Cigarette companies’ rights to free speech have, however, been curtailed on grounds of public health, and for the health of children above all. Joe Camel isn’t familiar to children today, as he was in the 1970s, because most people agree that it’s probably a bad idea to have a hip smoking cartoon character to which kids aspire, even if the company behind it swears blind it was just going after the pro-dromedary slice of the adult market.
Alcohol is similarly circumscribed, again with an eye to public health and, again, with a particular concern for young people. But if public health is a legitimate reason to curb corporations’ advertising to kids, why limit bans to cigarettes and booze, and not include, say, unhealthy food?
A paper in the latest issue of Nature by Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt, and Claire Brindis fuels the debate, pointing to the long-term similarities of sugar and alcohol consumption….”