Multitasking smokers looking to pick up smokes and pills in one fell swoop at their local pharmacy are out of luck. Instead, they’ll have to add a stop at the bodega.
Pharmacies throughout the five boroughs — including big box stores and supermarkets with pharmacies — are now prohibited from selling tobacco products following citywide legislation that took effect Jan. 1.
“People trust pharmacies to help them stay well,” said Herminia Palacio, deputy mayor for health and human services, in a statement last December. “They should be helping smokers quit, not the opposite.”
The change comes from a package of bills Mayor Bill de Blasio signed in 2017, according to the city’s health department. Under those same laws, the city barred the sale of e-cigarettes in pharmacies last August. Around 500 pharmacies in the city that still sell tobacco are affected, although some pharmacies voluntarily ceased selling it already, including CVS, which made the decision in 2014.
But for Emmanuel Sim, pharmacist at the Riverside RX Pharmacy in North Riverdale, the measure isn’t really a change because his business never sold cigarettes in the first place.
“The only reason we never did is because we’re more of a healthy pharmacy,” Sim said. There, customers won’t find Marlboro Lights or Parliaments, but they will find a range of homeopathic and organic products.
Not selling cigarettes, therefore, has “nothing to do with the law, it just contradicts what we’re trying to promote.”
“It doesn’t mean that I don’t smoke, but this is not the place” for it, added Sim, who admitted even he lights up, but only occasionally.
Riverside RX is relatively new, Sim said, having set up shop around seven months ago on its quiet strip of Riverdale Avenue, not far from Yohan’s Deli & Grocery, where owner and marathoner Josue Guerrero does sell cigarettes.
In fact, none of the pharmacies Sim says he’s worked at throughout the city in his five years as a pharmacist sold cigarettes.
And in his relatively short time in North Riverdale, he hasn’t found customers chagrinned they can’t pick up tobacco along with their prescriptions.
“No one even comes in and asks” for cigarettes, Sim said. Nor is not selling them a significant revenue setback — as it might be for a bodega. Rather, Riverside RX appears to be doing just fine sticking to its homeopathic wheelhouse. Meaning bodegas like Yohan’s aren’t really competition, but instead catering to totally different cravings.
It doesn’t seem to be so different, meanwhile, at Riverdale Pharmacy in Skyview Shopping Center.
“Personally, if I was an owner, I would not sell cigarettes,” pharmacist Wilson Valle said. “They’re very unhealthy.”
And Valle — who’s logged around a quarter century working as a pharmacist in different parts of the borough — doesn’t believe his business is missing out on a whole lot of extra revenue.
“I think cigarettes, they don’t sell as much as they used to,” Valle said. “First of all, they’re expensive,” and prices in the city have risen significantly after base price for a pack ticked up to $13 last June, making it the highest pack price in the United States, according to reports.
Furthermore, smoking “has a stigma to it now,” Valle said. “I think it’s not a profitable business anymore.”
Although some bodega owners — for whom tobacco sales can be a lifeline, raking in a hefty chunk of their revenue — might beg to differ.
“You can buy two six-packs of beer for” what it costs to buy “ a pack of cigarettes,” Valle added.
But North Riverdale’s pharmacies aren’t the only ones eschewing cigarette sales and other tobacco products. Those looking to light up in Kingsbridge also will be hard-pressed to find them at Friendly Pharmacy, the small storefront sandwiched between Pioneer Chinese restaurant and Max Tax Professional Services on West 231st Street, just west of Broadway.
Friendly never sold cigarettes, pharmacist Usama Javed said, standing behind the counter of his pristine pharmacy, amidst soothing aromas of lavender oil and muscle relief mineral bath soak.
In fact, their reasons echo Sim’s.
“We’re trying to promote health and wellness, so (selling tobacco) kind of goes against what our goal is,” Javed said.
But unlike Riverside RX Pharmacy, where customers don’t even ask for them, Friendly receives a number of customers through its front door looking for a smoke.
“I guess they’re accustomed to other pharmacies selling it, so (they assume) it’s kind of like a general thing that all pharmacies do,” Javed said.
Even though selling tobacco products might generate more income for the Kingsbridge pharmacy, that decision ultimately falls to the owner, not Javed.
“But if you’re trying to promote health and wellness, then it kind of goes against that,” he said.
And while a substantial number of Friendly’s customers are smokers looking to quit, Javed realizes he can only do so much to help them — including not selling cigarettes, or offering nicotine patches, if that’s something their doctor recommends.
But ultimately, “You can’t force anything on someone,” the pharmacist said. “It has to be by will.”