Iowa's largest grocery store chain should stop selling tobacco products to demonstrate its oft-stated commitment to health and wellness, anti-smoking activists said Thursday.
The Iowa Tobacco Prevention Alliance launched a campaign asking Hy-Vee, Inc. to ban products such as cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes at stores with pharmacies and clinics. As a practical matter, such a policy would cover nearly all of the chain's 235 stores in eight Midwestern states.
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The anti-smoking alliance said West Des Moines-based Hy-Vee's continued tobacco sales is out of step with its mission statement of "making lives easier, healthier, and happier" and positions on other health issues. Hy-Vee is a leader in the Healthiest State Initiative, a public-private campaign backed by Gov. Terry Branstad to make Iowa the nation's fittest state by 2016. Hy-Vee also has dietitians in most stores, has expanded its organic and heathy foods sections and sponsors a triathlon in Des Moines.
"The sale of tobacco products is fundamentally inconsistent with Hy-Vee's leadership in the Healthiest State Initiative and the company's commitment to health and healthy lifestyles," said Jeneane Moody, executive director of the alliance. "No business that is devoted to saving lives and to the health of consumers can meet those goals while simultaneously selling products that will result in the premature death of almost half of the people who use them."
Hy-Vee spokeswoman Tara Deering-Hansen said the company encourages customers to avoid tobacco by keeping those products behind courtesy counters and excluding them from marketing materials. She said the company also offers smoking cessation programs and products at its pharmacies.
However, she indicated that a ban might not be forthcoming.
"As a retailer, we offer consumers a variety of products; we do not believe it is our role to police their personal decisions," she said.
Moody said the alliance went public with its campaign after Hy-Vee leaders did not respond to an October letter seeking a meeting. Thursday's launch coincided with The Great American Smokeout, a day in which smokers nationwide are encouraged to quit. Supporters of the Hy-Vee effort can sign a petition on the alliance's website.
The request comes after retailer CVS banned cigarette and tobacco products this year at its 7,600 stores, including 19 in Iowa. The company said selling cigarettes was inconsistent with its goal of improving customers' health.
The alliance saw Hy-Vee as the most logical company to ask first to join CVS given its role in the Healthiest State Initiative, board president Christopher Squier said.
About 20 percent of adults in Iowa, or 455,000 people, smoke, the most recent state statistics show. A ban at Hy-Vee stores would cut down on the availability of tobacco and speed progress in helping more of them quit, Squier said.
Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the governor appreciates Hy-Vee's support for the Healthiest State Initiative, adding that it "isn't the governor's role to weigh in on a company's business decision."