You may not have noticed, but a federal appeals court this week upheld a law that bans coupons. For real.
Oh well, this couponing thing was fun while it lasted.
Ok, to be more specific, the coupon ban is actually only in effect in one U.S. city, and only applies to one type of product – tobacco. Whether or not that fact changes your mind about the otherwise terrible idea of coupon eradication, largely depends on how you feel about tobacco itself.
The ruling came nine months after a law in the city of Providence, Rhode Island took effect. Among other things, the law forbids retailers from accepting coupons for tobacco products. “All vendors selling tobacco in the City of Providence are prohibited from accepting or redeeming any coupon that provides any tobacco products or cigarettes for free or for less than the listed retail price,” the law reads. Violators can be fined up to $500 per offense, and risk having their license to sell tobacco products revoked.
Tobacco companies and advocacy groups sued to stop the ordinance from taking effect when it was first adopted last year, along with related rules against any tobacco price discounts, or flavored tobacco products. A federal court upheld the laws, the tobacco companies appealed, and this week, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision.
Anti-tobacco activists who might not otherwise be in favor of banning coupons, are cheering the ruling anyway, while smokers and their supporters who are already fed up with mandatory warning labels and restrictions on tobacco sales, say a ban on coupons and sales is going too far.
But the appeals court says it doesn’t see any problem with the tobacco coupon ban. To the tobacco companies’ argument that the law restricts their free speech, the court responded that “price regulations designed to discourage consumption do not violate the First Amendment.” And, in a curious bit of circular logic, the court found that the “forms of allegedly commercial speech restricted by the Price Ordinance are offers to engage in unlawful activity; that is, sales of tobacco products by way of coupons and multi-pack discounts, which are banned by the Price Ordinance itself.”
In other words, the coupons that the tobacco companies would like retailers to redeem are not allowed, because the law that they’re challenging says it’s not allowed.
Regardless of how you feel about tobacco products, and whether ensuring that they always remain at full price will help deter future users, the rationale given in the appeals court’s decision is so broad, that it could be seen as a bit troubling to coupon fans. If a community like Providence decides to pass a law banning coupons on other products that are deemed not to be good for you, the same appeals court could find that it’s not illegal because the law says it’s not.
Looking for a coupon for Twinkies? Sorry, that’s against the law!
If that sounds far-fetched, consider New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-publicized recent effort to ban large sugary drinks. A state appeals court struck down the law over the summer, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” Bloomberg’s time in office is swiftly running out, but the city has promised to keep up the fight.
Per Providence’s example, one approach New York could take is not banning bad-for-you drinks, but restricting the way they’re sold. You can’t sell large sodas at a discount, for example, or accept coupons on them. Remember, such “price regulations designed to discourage consumption do not violate the First Amendment.”
From there, it could be a slippery slope – first tobacco, then soda, then junk food, then processed foods. Those who complain that there are never coupons for fresh meat and produce might eventually find those are the only products for which there are coupons, because they’re banned on everything else.
Again, it sounds pretty far-fetched. But New York is already considering a law very similar to Providence’s, to ban coupons and sales on tobacco products. The aim is to protect young people, proponents argue. That’s because it’s a well-known fact that kids who think smoking is cool also think that using coupons, just like grandma does, is very, very cool. So banning coupons certainly ought to discourage them from taking up tobacco.
And if not, well, there are always other coupons for other products to ban. The only question is whether it stops with tobacco – or whether that’s only the start.
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