Tobacco ban puts local profits at risk
History has demonstrated that Prohibition doesn’t work — and neither will the sweeping tobacco ban voted into effect last week in Beverly Hills, Calif.
In what’s considered to be the first ban of its kind, the Beverly Hills City Council voted in a unanimous 5-0 decision on Tuesday to outlaw the sale of most tobacco products within its city limits in a purported measure to promote a healthy lifestyle. “Allowing tobacco products to be sold in the city increases access to these harmful and dangerous products and does not promote the city’s image as a healthy city,” proclaims the ordinance.
Of course, the “central planners” overseeing the restriction — infringing on Americans’ liberties — aren’t addressing the glaring hypocrisy that Beverly Hills permits marijuana dispensaries within its jurisdiction, allowing citizens and tourists alike to buy and smoke mind-altering drugs and get stoned. But tobacco? That’s taboo.
Talk about retail inequality and discrimination.
The ordinance bans most tobacco products from being sold at grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores and other small businesses but carves out an exemption for some high-end establishments including upscale hotels and ritzy cigar bars. Result? The mom and pop shops get burned while corporations that own the hotels and cigar bars get to profit off smoking products.
Hard to imagine this misguided ban would be welcome at a time in American culture when vocal far-left politicians like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and others are pounding the table over “income inequality.” How exactly are the city councilors in Beverly Hills going to justify the city’s selective enforcement benefitting the elite? Clearly, misguided bans that outlaw legal products that benefit some retailers but not others widen income disparities.
Make no mistake. Smoking products are harmful to one’s health, and everyone must consider the risks before lighting up. But if the city council is going to ban these products, they ought to be banned everywhere, not discriminately.
That being said, bans simply won’t work, as smokers who enjoy tobacco products will simply drive to neighboring towns to purchase cigarettes and other smoking-related products, hurting local businesses. Worse, consumers who drive out of town to purchase cigarettes, for example, won’t just buy a pack of Marlboros while they’re visiting an adjacent town. They will also buy other goods, such as beverages, gasoline, groceries and other nonprohibited items, thereby hurting a gamut of small businesses in Beverly Hills.
Undoubtedly, coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and other retail shops will be affected when customers are pushed out of town.
Here’s how it works. A smoker drives to West Hollywood or another neighboring town to buy cigarettes or other banned products, and instead of spending the day shopping on Rodeo Drive and eating in a Beverly Hills restaurant, he or she does that someplace else. Result? Citizens and tourists visiting Beverly Hills who enjoy tobacco products don’t become healthier due to the ban, as they haven’t quit smoking. Instead, the “feel-good” measure causes local businesses to lose profits and be forced to lay off workers.
All the more reason consumer-choice advocates should resist the prohibition of most legal products that are readily available within a short distance of the banned products, especially in an age of Amazon and other door-to-door delivery services that deliver millions of products to one’s doorstep.
Take Concord, Massachusetts. In 2012, the uber-liberal town filled with environmental extremists banned the sale of single-serve bottled water in an effort to protect the environment. Did that misguided measure reduce the consumption of beverages contained in plastic or stop the public from buying bottled water? Far from it. Residents throughout the town now have cases of bottled water delivered to their homes and businesses instead of buying them from small local retailers.
Consumers of bottled water simply took their business elsewhere — with no upside for the environment.
The same will happen in Beverly Hills. Few, if any, smokers will quit as a result of the ban, while local businesses will lose margins and customers.
Perhaps Beverly Hills ought to recall the wise words of former President Ronald Reagan before enacting such bans in the future: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Adriana Cohen is a syndicated columnist with the Boston Herald.