Cigarette packs are displayed at a smoke shop in New York, Monday, March 18, 2013. A new anti-smoking proposal would make New York the first city in the nation to keep tobacco products out of sight in retail stores. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the goal is to reduce the youth smoking rate. The legislation would require stores to keep tobacco products in cabinets, drawers, under the counter, behind a curtain or in another concealed spot. They could only be visible when an adult is making a purchase or during restocking. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Retailers who sell cigarettes may try to clothe themselves in the protection of the law, but ethically they’re stark naked, says Murray Williams.

Cape Town - Every now and again one sees an everyday sight that startles one. Mine, this week, was a very large and busy cigarette counter at a major supermarket.

In the main store, many people were pushing trolleys around and queueing to pay for all sorts of foods and household products. Fair enough.

And then there was this separate queue, at the counter near the door, where people were lining up to buy a drug that would give them a particularly good fix, but a particularly dangerous one.

In that moment, that counter looked no different to people queuing at the window of a black sports car in a parking lot to buy their drugs.

So the sight of this “Harm For Sale” point begged the question: Why the hell are these things being sold here, in this (ostensibly) respectable, healthy supermarket?

These questions were sent to the head offices of the three major supermarket groups: “It’s common cause that cigarettes are extremely dangerous. So:

* Why do you sell cigarettes?

* How do you feel about selling products, so openly, so unashamedly, that are so harmful?

* How does your company reconcile your corporate social responsibility policies with the sale of products which are so personally harmful to so many, and financially burdensome on the entire South African state?

* Do you refuse to sell any other products with questionable health impacts? If so, why does the same not apply to cigarettes?

The first response was that the company “supports consumers’ right to make informed choices about their purchases and we are not in a position to censure their decisions. We sell consumer goods that are legally available on the market and for which there is consumer demand, in accordance with any applicable laws governing the sale of such goods”.

The second was: “The sale of tobacco is legal, and (the company) complies with all relevant legislation, including rules relating to advertising, display and the prohibition on sale to minors. We respect the right of our customers to make informed choices on this issue. We therefore are supportive of steps to ensure awareness of the health risks relating to tobacco, and initiatives to help those who do smoke but wish to stop.”

The third chain chose not to respond at all.

At face value, their responses were fair enough. They don’t make the laws, they simply comply with them.

But that response, sadly, is the problem.

By providing a legal answer, the supermarkets are guilty of two offences:

First, acting legally is not the same as acting ethically, or acting responsibly.

The “personal choice” argument simply doesn’t hold water, because smoking damages our entire society – even if one grants individuals the right to harm themselves. It damages families, by compromising the health of parents, for example, and it damages the entire state, through its burden on the health care system,

The supermarkets are essentially saying: “We’re allowed to. We don’t care that it’s a dangerous product, or that the huge harm is common cause. So we’re going to – because it makes us money.”

You don’t believe that? OK, think of someone you regard as a pillar of our society in South Africa. Take your pick. Would they agree to sell cigarettes under their name, knowing the damage they cause?

I think not.

“Respectable retailers” who sell cigarettes may try to clothe themselves in the protection of the law, but ethically they’re stark naked.

* Murray Williams’s column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @mwdeadline

Cape Argus