by David McElroy
For several days, I’d been suffering from a mild cold, so I was using NyQuil to sleep at night instead of staying awake coughing. I realized one night that I was out of NyQuil, so I made a quick trip to the Target near my house to get some.
When I handed the 12-ounce bottle of NyQuil (a generic version, actually) to the clerk, she scanned it and asked for my driver’s license. I asked her why. She said it was required by law. I told her it’s not required by law, since it’s not a controlled substance and the law doesn’t require identification or recording of purchases in Alabama. She looked at me as though I was questioning a basic law of nature. She couldn’t understand why I would object to having my personal information stored in a database in exchange for handing her cash for cold medicine.
I left without the NyQuil. I told the clerk that I’d buy it someplace else that doesn’t invade my privacy. I walked out feeling angry at Target. And then I drove to Walmart and bought twice as much of the medicine without any ID of any kind.
Why does Target want to record my information when Walmart doesn’t?
An ingredient in many cold medications — including NyQuil — can be used in the manufacture of meth. So some states have enacted restrictions about who can buy cold medication and how much of it people can buy. It’s an absurd response to a problem that can’t be eliminated by inconveniencing the rest of us, but that hasn’t stopped many politicians from trying to “fight drugs” by putting restrictions on innocent people.
Target, however, is going beyond what the law requires. When you attempt to buy cold medicine, a clerk requires you to hand over an ID, which is scanned by the register. There are differing stories about what information is read by the register. A 2010 article at InformationWeek quotes the company as saying that only the birthdate of the customer is recorded. Employees at the store at times claim that it’s the law the scan IDs, but in most places (including Alabama) it’s not. Another Target employee told me that if someone tried to buy cold medication at several stores using the same ID, that would show up and police would be alerted.
I’m not the only one who’s unhappy with the chain’s policy of scanning IDs. I found several stories of people who were able to get around the requirement by making an issue of it and getting a manager to override the register requirement. But why should I have to make an issue of it — delaying myself and those in line behind me — because a company decides to punish me because meth addicts might want an ingredient in my cold medicine?
As I see it, there are basically three issues.
First, you can’t stop people from using drugs that they want to use. I don’t use any kind of recreational drugs — including alcohol — but that’s my own choice. If I wanted to use any of the various drugs that are illegal, I could go out and find some today. It’s impossible to stop. Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol — and it doesn’t work for any other drug.
Second, the idea of trying to stop the use of drugs by inconveniencing the entire public by putting restrictions on the sale of cold medicine is insane. Nobody would debate the fact that the vast majority of cold medicine on the market is used by normal consumers, not people trying to cook meth. Restrictions on the sale of simple over-the-counter cold medicine end up inconveniencing the vast majority of innocent people — without making any difference in the availability of meth.
Third, even if it were possible to win the so-called “war on drugs” and even if restricting the quantity of cold medicine you can buy is reasonable, Target has no rational reason to go beyond what the law requires and store information about us in a database. The company has no rational reason to ask for a driver’s license or to scan it.
Target has the legal right to set the conditions of its sales. If the company chose to do so, it could demand identification before it sold anything to anybody. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the company’s terms — or similar terms from other stores, so long as another company is willing to offer me an alternative.
I generally like shopping at the Target near my house. It’s convenient and I like a number of the employees. But I’m not going to buy anything from the company — or anyone else — that requires me to identify myself in ways that go beyond what the state requires. It’s bad enough to have to comply with state laws about such things. I’m certainly not going to comply with a requirement that goes beyond that.
I won’t be buying NyQuil or anything similar at Target, because the company clearly doesn’t want to sell it to me on terms that are acceptable to me. I was ready to give Target my money, but Walmart got the cash instead.
Target is free to set its terms. I’m free to spend my money elsewhere.