Several recent news items illustrate a point that we've been making for some time now. A couple of months ago, the well-known discount pharmacy chain CVS announced that it will discontinue selling tobacco products this fall. The company explained that it is striving to increase its healthcare provision services, and believes that selling cigarettes does not contribute to the image it is attempting to build.
We patronize our local CVS store frequently. It recently underwent a major renovation, as a result of that the approach to the cashier stations leads through an angled corridor lined with display shelves presenting a wide variety of single-serving confectionery items and a reach-in cooler for cold beverages.
Now, anyone who has been paying attention for the past decade or so knows that there is an assertive and strident school of thought which considers selling candy, snack cakes, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and juices, and energy drinks to be inconsistent with providing healthcare services, too. CVS has received a good deal of editorial commendation for its "bold" move to get out of the tobacco retailing business, but in a quiet moment, it might reflect on the proverbial "slippery slope." If you yield to one pressure group, you usually find it more difficult to resist the next one, and so on down that broad and gentle descent to destruction.
We thought of this when we learned of the death of Bill Burch, longtime head of Burch Food Services in Sikeston, MO, and a longtime energetic participant in industry affairs (see story on Page 12). We recall speaking with him a quarter of a century ago about a campaign that he was leading with the Missouri Automatic Merchandising Association (now the Mid-America Automatic Merchandising Association) against a proposal by the St. Louis municipal government to restrict the sale of cigarettes through vending machines.
Interviewing Burch about this, we asked him how many cigarette machines he was running. He replied that his company had concentrated on full-line locations, and most of those did not want cigarette machines, so he had no cigarette vending machines at all at that time. We asked him, then, why he was leading a fight to defend tobacco vending.
He replied that allowing anyone to forbid the sale of any legal product helped establish a precedent for future restrictions on the sale of any other legal product, and no retailer would be safe. That he was absolutely right is demonstrated by the attacks that have been launched on products containing sugar, caffeine, "genetically modified organisms," saturated fat, and so on and on. Emboldened by their success at outflanking the traditional defenses expected under the rule of law, the "advocacy groups" -- a diverse lot, ranging from personal-injury lawyers through opponents of market economics and global industrial civilization in general to well-meaning public health specialists -- have progressively widened the scope of their targets. They continue to wage a relentless struggle for the hearts and minds of headline-writers. The MAMA won its campaign in St. Louis, and there were other well-conducted defenses of the right to sell legal products to willing buyers, but these were gallant rear-guard actions.
History is full of stories about one or another belligerent in a local quarrel calling on a foreign power for assistance, and ending up as a subject of that power. We think it's important for the owners and managers of businesses to keep those sad narratives in mind. If you are trying to sell something, it is natural (and certainly traditional) to welcome, and encourage, government to set up obstacles to the sale of competing products, or provide subsidies for the sale of yours. But if you succeed, you severely limit your future options.
This is especially important in vending. Because vending machines usually are operated on another organization's premises and marketed as an amenity for the location's employees or clientele, the public typically does not know exactly who runs them. Therefore, people who might oppose a plan to burden the friendly local convenience store or coffee shop proprietor with onerous restrictions or regulations may ignore, or even endorse, a proposal that will injure a vending operation. It has been recognized for six decades or more that one solution to this problem is for vending operators to conduct effective local public relations programs, giving the public faces to put with the machines.
Also important, though, is for vending operators themselves to recognize that their hopes for future prosperity depend on the continued health and vitality of the vending industry. It also has long been known that attempting to win business by accusing one's competitors of unethical practices has bad long-term effects on public confidence.
This also applies to companies attempting to win market share for their products by branding competitive items as "unhealthy." The old warning against "knocking the competition" takes on new urgency in an era when breaking ranks can lead to diminished opportunity and final disaster.