The provincial New Democrats and Liberals don't agree on much. In fact, you don't even want to be in the same room with them if the issue of privatization or labour relations comes up. But both sides of the house seem to agree tobacco sales should be banned in pharmacies. In an interview with The Vancouver Sun, New Democrat Mike Farnworth said "there's something slightly oxymoronic about having tobacco products in pharmacy. Pharmacists are there to help people, to care for people. Tobacco products kill people." And Liberal Colin Hansen backed the Port Coquitlam-Burke Mountain MLA up adding, "The reality is that tobacco is killing people and costing our health system many hundreds of millions of dollars." There's just one little problem though: the MLAs made that commitment two elections and five years ago, back when Mr. Farnworth was health minister and Mr. Hansen was his Opposition critic.
Today, the province is now run by the Liberals. And since Gordon Campbell moved into the premier's West Annex digs, the proposed ban has vanished from the headlines and the government's agenda. In fact, last year, the legislature's select standing committee on health's first report stated the majority of its members "rejected legislating the removal (of tobacco from drugstores) and rather encouraged the College, the pharmacists and the general public to continue to lobby pharmacy chains for the voluntary removal of tobacco products."
This, despite the fact six other provinces have already outlawed or will be outlawing such sales. And the British Columbia College of Pharmacists - the regulatory body responsible for the profession - passed a council resolution in 2000 calling on government to ban tobacco sales in drugstores by 2002.
So what happened? The current health minister, George Abbott, couldn't say why Minister Hansen didn't follow through on the resolution. And Minister Hansen didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
But speaking with Public Eye, former government minister Ted Nebbeling, who describes himself as having been one of the committee's strongest anti-smoking members, said he and his colleagues rejected the ban because government shouldn't be legislating business practices.
"What's next? Are you going to tell people you can't serve farmed salmon in the restaurant? I don't think so!" Nebbeling exclaimed.
Former committee chair Val Roddick added there was a rural-urban split on the committee, with those from constituencies outside metropolitan areas opposing the ban.
Using more aquaculture comparisons, Ms. Roddick said "It's like fish-farming - the urban areas don't like fish farming. But up the coast - in the hinterland or heartland or Interior of British Columbia - the people are more pro-fish farming because it means jobs. Smoking is the same issue."
Ms. Roddick said the British Columbia College of Pharmacists was one of three groups that made committee presentations in favour of a ban. And she said, to the best of her knowledge, no committee members were not lobbied by those opposed to a ban.
But, in an interview, Canadian Association of Chain Drug Stores regional director Jim Waters confirmed he has spoken in the past to both Minister Hansen and former Health Planning Minister Sindi Hawkins - urging them not to outlaw cigarette sales.
"We encourage our members to look at the voluntary removal of tobacco from their store shelves," said Mr. Waters - something many independent pharmacies but only a minority of chain store association members have already done. But the association's members oppose a ban because "it would seem unfair public policy."
The reason? "It's a fact of commercial life that our members compete with other retailers - not just for sales but for (customer) traffic which drives sales." And Mr. Waters says cigarette sales drive traffic to drugstores.
But when asked about a pharmacist college study showing the Ontario ban had little impact on pharmacies, Mr. Waters said, "I can't dispute that." Although, anecdotally, he says some rural independent pharmacies are concerned about losing or even going out of business if those sales become illegal.
But if the chain stores aren't impacted, why is his association opposing the ban?
"Simply two words: it's the principle," explained Mr. Waters. "It would be a dangerous precedent our members feel...We keep hearing that obesity is the new tobacco. So who's to say that someone isn't going to be campaigning to move chocolate bars and potato chips out of our members stores. And we don't support that."
Mr. Waters is joined in supporting a voluntary rather than a legislative ban by the British Columbia Pharmacy Association, a professional organization. In an interview, deputy chief executive officer Ken McCartney said has been no evidence proving smoking rates diminish when pharmacies are banned from selling tobacco. Mr. McCartney denied the pharmacy association's position had anything to do with the fact its members include chain drug stores.
But the college remains firm in its position that selling tobacco in a health care setting is both harmful to "the professional reputation of pharmacy" and an ethical concern for pharmacists, who feel uncomfortable dispensing get-well advice in a store that sells so-called sin sticks.
And, in its written submission to the select standing committee, the college notes "when tobacco is sold and displayed in the same manner as vitamins and cough drugs, it suggests a level of endorsement of tobacco" - which, unlike chips and chocolate, aren't safe for consumption in any amount.
"This current government has made the statement that it wants to be the healthiest jurisdiction ever to host the Olympics. And I think (a ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies) would be right in line with that," says college registrar Marshall Moleschi.
And will those arguments sway the Campbell administration's new health minister?
"The issue of how we continue to encourage broader tobacco cessation is under discussion. So I'm not rejecting any option at this point to encourage tobacco cessation," says Minister Abbott.
But if those cessation initiatives include banning tobacco sales in pharmacies, at least the New Democrats and the Liberals will have something to agree on. The following is a backgrounder on the present state of tobacco sale bans in other provincial jurisidictions.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec
Tobacco sales in pharmacies are outlawed in these four provinces. Ontario was the first, introducing a ban in 1995. New Brunswick followed two years later, Quebec a year after that and Nova Scotia in 2000.
Newfoundland and Labrador
This year, the Newfoundland Pharmaceutical Association put into force ban on tobacco sales in its standards of practice, which are empowered by the force of law. The legislature passed a ban on such sales in 2000 but didn't proclaim it.
Prince Edward Island
Health and Social Services Minister Chester Gillian tabled legislation last year that would ban tobacco sales in pharmacies. The Canadian Cancer Society's Prince Edward Island division's communications manager Amy Wheaton says "when the fall legislature starts up again (in November) we're hoping to see that legislation go through."
According to the National Non-Smoking Week 2005 status report the government has been "urging pharmacies to voluntarily withdraw from tobacco sales." And "failing a positive response" the government will legislate a ban.
In 2000, a special all party committee recommended banning tobacco sales in pharmacies - a ban supported by 70 percent of residents in a government poll. But Representative Board of Saskatchewan Pharmacists executive director Brett Filson says, "the discussions we had again last spring did not give us an indication that there was going to be a move to change."
In 2002, government caucus members pushed then Health Minister Gary Mar to abandon proposed legislation that would have included a ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies. The caucus members believed a ban would infringe on business rights.
Six provinces may have already outlawed tobacco sales or will be outlawing them this year. But those bans, which are supposed to include shops with in-store pharmacies (such as groceries), haven't been a complete success. The reason: those shops have, in some cases, tried to get around the ban by walling off those pharmacies and turning them into separate stores. And others are continuing to sell tobacco at enclosed kiosks accessible via outdoor entrances.