Friday, February 20, 2009


I was hanging out with an old friend of mine last night (after seeing a presentation put on by the Barack Obama campaign's graphic design team, but that's a different post for a different blog). He owns a tobacco store in San Francisco's Chinatown district. This has been a fairly recent venture for my friend as he is actually a licensed electrician and carpenter. Three years ago an opportunity was presented to him to buy this business which was considered profitable. Now, my friend has no ethical qualms about smoking, he believes that everyone has the right to do to their bodies what they see fit, including smoking. As long as you know the risks and not harming others, why not. Funny that he has never smoked in his life...

Needless to say, running a small business, especially one considered "undesirable" by the PC Police, is quite tricky and frustrating in the City of San Francisco. A few months ago, his business was tagged in an undercover operation by the SFPD, who sent in a 15-year old boy with an altered ID to buy cigarettes at his shop. The register was being attended at the moment by a retired man who is employed part-time by the store. The man has cancer is enjoys being useful with the time he has left. Unfortunately, the retiree got a bit confused by the wording on the ID given to him (he did ask to see it) and sold the boy some tobacco.

Next thing you know, the police and the department of health invade the store with a pricy ticket for the employee and a notice to appear for the store owner. My friend ended up battling the city over this "bust", as he has never had this happen before in the three years in business. His last appearance to determine a fine was in front of the Board of Health supervisors, of which he needed 4 out of 5 votes in his favor to drop the charge against the shop. He got 3 out of 5. His fine? $1000 and a 15 day suspension of his license to sell tobacco! This may very well put his business under as his clientele may flock to the many illegal tobacco selling stores in Chinatown that go unchecked (now that's another story as well).

What bothered my friend (and myself) even more was that the two supervisors who voted against him made it known their disgust with smoking still being legal in this country and the deception the tobacco industry laid upon the American public. This was a vote against Big Tobacco, not a struggling small business man with one little mistake! Even worse was the hearing prior to my friends was a liquor store that had sold a large quantity of alcohol to a minor. That fine? $1,500 with no suspension. Considering the profit margin on booze as compare to tobacco, this was barely a slap on the wrist.

Have we gotten to the point where tobacco is considered worse than alcohol? Who is more dangerous to society and others, a teenager with ill-gotten alcohol or one with a pack of Camels? Now neither is great but the punishments handed out do not seem correct to me.

For the record, I am a former smoker and a social drinker. I did have a fake ID at 18 and purchased alcohol quite regularly with it. As a teenager, never did I think about getting a fake ID to buy cigarettes.

Feel free to argue about this.

1 comment:

  1. As a foreigner, I feel for people like your friend. As much as I loathe having to take my passport with me everywhere (pretty much the last thing I want in my pocket when I'm getting drunk is something so important, and Washington state doesn't recognise my UK driving licence as valid ID), it seems the harshness of penalties are too ridiculous if I - a 38 year old - am being carded for cigarettes. Sometimes, I find myself asking someone clearly younger than me behind a counter, "Do you HONESTLY think that I'm younger than you are?" but, of course, they're just doing what they are told to do, and inconveniencing me and every other smoker/drinker who doesn't have grey hair and skin like an elephant is less important than losing their jobs or their employer getting a fine.