RITE AID: Health Official Tried to Shield Company From Negative Antitobacco Ad
State Health Director Diana Bonta last year attempted to shield Rite Aid from a critical antitobacco ad campaign targeting the pharmacy chain that donated $130,000 to Gov. Gray Davis (D), the San Francisco Examiner reports. The California Medical Association Foundation planned to target Rite Aid because it is the state's largest pharmacy, and Rite Aid officials were the "most resistant" to pleas to curb cigarette sales at its stores that "are otherwise devoted to selling medicine and health products." Christine Fellon, project director of the foundation's Pharmacy Partnership, said, "At the other chain stores they were always willing to talk. Rite Aid said, 'Talk to our attorneys.'" Having already donated $80,000 to Davis' 1998 election campaign, the company gave Davis another $50,000 on July 30, 1999, a month after being informed of the imminent ad campaign. According to a foundation letter, Bonta appealed to the foundation to postpone the ads so that she could mediate with Rite Aid directly, but the foundation rejected Bonta's request, running a full-page ad in the New York Times and holding a press conference featuring a throat cancer victim. Bonta defended her actions, saying "it seemed ethically inconsistent to single out one pharmacy for selling tobacco when others do the same." She also wanted to give Rite Aid time to respond to the criticism before facing negative publicity. Bonta denied that her actions were linked to Rite Aid's contribution and said, "I didn't know about the donation. That was not a factor." Antismoking activists charge that Bonta's involvement was "troubling" and "unusual." Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor at UC-San Francisco, said, "It is shocking that the health director in the administration of a governor who campaigned against tobacco to get elected would stand in the way of an effort to get cigarettes out of pharmacies, no matter how big the campaign donation." Rite Aid Public Relations Director Sarah Datz defended the pharmacy's decision to continue cigarette sales, noting, "We're in a retail business, and our job is giving our customers a choice" (Williams, 5/21).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.