Why I Don’t Sell Cigarettes


I was a skinny 13-year-old the first time I dragged a match across the scratchy edge of a matchbook and touched it to the end of a Marlboro cigarette. The slim length of the smoke captured between my lips, I closed my eyes and breathed in the acrid aroma of tobacco alight, trying not to cough.

The year was 1961, long before the time when surgeon general warnings accompanied discouraging glances from mothers and other hovering figures disapproving of this habit. Everyone smoked. It was a distinguishing characteristic among long-legged, black-haired European women who oozed the kind of sexuality we pubescent American boys dogged after and it was the hallmark of the leather-jacket-wearing hot-car-driving older boys we aspired to be.

Smoking was the after-touch of a sensual movie scene and it was the badge of being cool. I first lit up unaware of the inherent toxicity of the habit; I certainly had no clue that dragging on cigarettes, even for the 13 years that I was addicted to nicotine, would have more farther-reaching effects on my body than almost any other habit.

I quit after I graduated law school in 1973. It was then, entering into my adult life and all the responsibility and adventure that came with it, that I made the conscious decision to engage only in vices that would give me some beautiful pleasure without the high price to my health that cigarettes demanded.

Smoking gave nothing to me except the shakes when I tried to stop. For a month after my last toke, I walked around with Tootsie Roll Pops hanging out of both sides of my mouth just to simulate the habit while I dragged through withdrawal.

I enjoy an occasional gin martini on a sunlit or grey afternoon and there’s nothing better than a Creekstone steak blood red on the inside. Those are indulgences I can afford because I bookend them with so much more healthy intake of veggies and oily fish that the balance is skewed in my favor by a long-shot.

For decades, I’ve sold cigarettes in my stores because that’s what groceries have always done – make available items that the consumer demands and which society has deemed permissible, despite evidence to the contrary. This month, I acted on a hunch I’ve harbored for years – I pulled all remaining inventory from my shelves and announced that Hiller’s Markets will no longer sell cigarettes.

I’m not trying to lecture, believe me. Every person has the supreme right to choose their habits and behaviors. It’s just that no one has the right to kill others — overtly, subtly or otherwise without cause. Simple proximity to a smoker is not good enough reason to risk death.

Discontinuing cigarette sales is going to cost me a quarter of a million dollars a year in income. And it might cost me even more if I lose customers who are angry that I won’t enable their habit.

Change is easy for no one, so the realization that Hiller’s won’t be an outlet for this vice might hit hard at first. But by next month, my stores’ shelves of smokes will be a distant memory as we move on to more important matters.

That’s ok. There are so many statistics about how smoking not only destroys an individual’s lungs and sets him up for cancer and other deadly ailments – but the secondhand smoke, the off-air breathed in by anyone around a smoker, is just as deadly.

Babies of smokers have higher rates of medical problems than the children of non-smokers. And now there’s research indicating that even the unborn babies of someone who was surrounded by secondhand smoke risks the negative effects of this habit.

That’s a long channel of impact.

I’m glad none of my sons smoke. I wasn’t the best example, smoking for 13 years as I did, well before they were born, and then later allowing the sale of this crutch in my seven stores. It wasn’t something we spoke of; I discouraged adamantly the obvious illegal drugs, issuing and maintaining a no-exceptions policy in my house to marijuana use or even experimentation.

The heinous part of all of this is that cigarettes are legal. So is alcohol and God knows I love a good drink. I sell foods that contain trans-fats. Yes, there are vices for sale at Hiller’s that, if abused, could certainly be the downfall of even the kindest customer. But they will only be hurting themselves.

And…. I’ve got to start somewhere.

I won’t sell fish raised in China. I won’t sell meat clinging to filthy pens and stuffed to the point of illness. I won’t sell produce grown in valleys where cattle run-off makes it susceptible to e.coli and worse.

I maintain the highest standards at every point where I know I can make an impact on the community around me. When you’re a leader, however slight and humble, your every move makes a statement.

So I won’t sell cigarettes anymore. You can do whatever you want and you can hate me for having scruples. But as Zechariah Chafee, Jr., wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 1919, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”


Why I Don’t Sell Cigarettes — 43 Comments

  1. Jim, I commend you for your decision not to sell cigarettes anymore. It is about time that someone makes a courageous decision based on their beliefs versus a decision based on making money off of something that is known to kill people. While this decision may not be a popular one with some people I agree with you that it is the right one. After reading the news story online I came right to the Hiller’s website so I could say THANK YOU. You have not lost, but gained a customer. I love that I have the choice to shop where I choose and I am someone who feels strongly that consumers can speak volumes with their money. My money will definitely be spent in the future at your store. Way to go Jim!!!

  2. Good for you! I go out of my way to shop at Hiller’s because of the principled way you run the store. Banning cigarettes is yet another way that Hiller’s shows that it is a good example rather than one of the crowd.

  3. Hiller’s is one of two grocery stores that I shop at almost exclusively now and you’ve just added one more reason for me to keep Hiller’s firmly in that category. Kudos for following your ideals and not letting concern for losing customers drive your decisions! I appreciate knowing that this store is a place that has a conscience and considers its customers health.

  4. Jim,

    Great decision. More people need to stand up and do what is right without getting caught up in how it will impact the bottom line financially. The fact that you will actually lose revenue, but do what you think is the right says a lot about you as a person and your stores.

    I am a loyal Hiller’s shopper and will continue to be knowing I will be getting quality products from a company that has principle.

    Brian L.

  5. I heard about your decision to quit selling cigarettes at your store on WWJ. I commend you for making this decision and will stop by your store whenever I am in the Ann Arbor area. My husband works in Ann Arbor and will be stopping by as a new customer. I have asthma from years of living with my parents who were smokers and who consequently died a few years ago from lung cancer. I hope that the non-smoking bill does pass so that the rest of us can enjoy smoke free establishments.
    Thank you again and continue your good work!

  6. While I have always loved Hiller’s, it is not the most convenient grocery for me, so I don’t shop there as often as I’d like. After hearing your stance on cigarette sales, I will travel the additional miles to shop at your store more often. Thank you for being a prncipled businessman, and your concern for your community!

  7. Way to go! I’ve shopped at Hillers forever because of the selection and the people. You’ve never let me down. Now I add social pride to my reasons.

  8. I am a recent convert to shopping at Hillers, having just moved back to the country after a four year absence. I was initially drawn to Hillers for the ample supply of ingredients I can get to cook for my husband how has choosen to fight his cancer through nutrition and supplements rather than conventional medicine. I will main a loyal customer because of the principles that Hillers stands for. I was thrilled to see the publicity that the stores would no longer carry cigarettes! Well done!

  9. I am so impressed with your support of Israel, and now also with the decision to stop selling cigarettes!
    Please keep setting the right example of proper values for the whole community.
    It is rare these days.
    I feel great spending my hard earned money at your West Bloomfield store.

  10. I used to smoke a pack a day but quit years aog for health and financial reasons. It is a nasty habit that is no longer socially acceptable in most circles. My hats off to you for taking a stand to not further people’s destructive vices…I love shopping at Hiller’s in Northville!

  11. I was so excited to read in the Oakland Press about your decision to stop selling cigarettes at Hiller’s. I Immediately shared the article with my two elementary age children. We talked about how the decision must have been very hard from a financial stand point, but how morally it was the very best thing to do. My 8 year old is writing you his own letter of thank you for doing the right thing. I am emailing this link to everyone in myaddress book because I want them to know that shopping at Hiller’s means doing the right thing. You have a great store already and you’ve just made it infinitely better in my opinion!!

  12. Thank you, everyone, for supporting this decision! I didn’t do it to win kudos from customers, but I am so glad to have your support. I’ll lose income, but at least I can sleep at night, knowing that I’m doing some small thing toward improving the health of our community. Onward!

  13. Kim – I am supremely impressed that you initiated this discussion with your children at such young ages. What a smart thing to do! I admire your parenting and am honored to have you as a shopper. Jim

  14. It’s great that you quit selling cigarettes. Now you have to do something about your employees who powersmoke outside the stores. I have had to walk through clouds to get to your Haggerty and 5 Mile store.

  15. My dad showed me your ad today supporting Michigan and then he went on to say that you don’t sell cigarettes anymore.. and I have to say THANK YOU!!!! That is why I am on your website and blog, all because of your ad and well I was interested why you didn’t sell cigarettes anymore.

    I don’t smoke but I have a lot of family and friends that do. I hope more businesses follow your footsteps, because even though people will always find a way to find smokes, the less places that sell them, the better! There is nothing worse than coming home from a night out and smelling like smoke, or even just hanging out with one person who smokes and that smell doesn’t leave your hair and clothes. It’s digusting. I’m all for a no smoking ban in bars and restaurants, especially casinos!

    The more I find out about your values and Hillers, the more I am impressed. And it’s different than just blowing smoke up peoples butts, you’re actually doing something about it and I commend you! We need more people in the world like you!

    Thank you for supporting the Michigan economy, The Big Three, and setting higher standards for small and big businesses. Compared to Kroger, Hillers always seemed a little higher priced to me, but the more I shop there, the more I realize how worth it, it is. Not to mention, the prices really aren’t all that different. Plus, if it means supporting my local economy, I am all for paying a little more if I have to, even though money is tight. I will be shopping at Hillers more often and will hold you to supporting Michigans economy! Thank you!

  16. I initially came to your blog in order to commend you on this week’s ad, which not only features Michigan-made products but also lists the number of people each company employs. What a great way to educate consumers about their power to improve the lives of their neighbors and communities through simple decisions, such as which brands to purchase when given a choice.

    After reading here that you have pulled cigarettes from your stores, I also must commend the decision you, yourself, have made to improve the well-being of the communities you serve.

    Way to go, Jim!

  17. I admire your stance on this issue. Also, wanted to say how much I appreciate this weeks ad and listing Michigan based companies. I am shopping tomorrow at Hiller’s for the first time in a few years and am excited to be back!

  18. Jim, this is GREAT news! I was thrilled to learn this. I think the next step is to stop your employees from sitting out on the smoking bench next to the entrance. You know how bad second hand smoke is, and I always hate driving and walking past your workers who are breathing second hand smoke right at me when I go to and from your store in Commerce, MI.

  19. It is so encouraging to know there are entrepeneurs who care more about doing the right thing than being pressured by society and special interest groups! Thank you for your bold decision to stop selling cigarettes! I have a hunch your stores just might make more money because you will increase your customers! I hope they do! Maybe others will follow your lead. Thank you.

  20. Jim, Like everyone else who commented, I’m proud of your decision to responsibly remove cigarettes from your shelves. I wonder if there have been any repercussions from the Tobacco sales industry to you. Now that you will have more space without the cigarettes, what will replace these on your shelves?

    I suppose there are some foods that could be construed as unhealthy in your stores.. and it’s up to your consumers to purchase in moderation things such as candy, liquor and sweet cereals. You and President Obama are off to a great start this year! Change is good!

    Keep up the great work. Your father would be proud.

  21. Bravo to you Jim. I know you support medical research so this decision of yours to stop selling cigarettes is totally in keeping with that. I notice that some of your employees do smoke – do you offer them any kind of smoking cessation support? A healthy employee is a more productive employee.

  22. Thanks again, for so many heartfelt comments! I’ve always believed that it is essential to a growing and long-lasting business to remain focused on the needs of the community at-large – we cannot simply operate as a money-making machine if we are to truly connect with our shoppers and maintain a long relationship with them – weathering bumps in the road and economic roller coasters, etc. I am honored to count so many articulate thinkers among my loyal customer base.

  23. Jim:

    You are amazing! My heart swells with pride because of your decision not to sell cigarettes, especially in light of the financial impact it will have for your stores. I also am an ex-smoker (quit over 20 years ago). My father’s death was 90% attributable to having smoked for 50 years. I support your decision wholeheartedly! Bless you!

    I am proud to say that I have been a Hiller’s customer for about 15 years because of the top quality of fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, etc. Your employees have been very pleasant and helpful at all your stores we’ve shopped at (been to no less than 4 Hiller’s). Other grocery stores just don’t equal the quality and selection found at Hiller’s. Now with your decision regarding cigarettes, you have our loyalty and support taken to a new level!

    You rock, Jim!

  24. Jim,

    I like that you support Michigan products (please consider supporting products made in the US).

    In the produce section, I saw vegetable bags ($4.99 a piece), made in China of Australian ingredients. If Walmart does it or Kroger’s I expect it. I don’t expect if from Hillers. Please stop selling Chinese made products. We don’t need any more than we have already. Plus, who knows what’s in these bags??

    You make the decision to stop selling sigarettes but you sell these bags and some of your ethnic products have MSG in them (a known contributor to health problems).


  25. Way to go on supporting Israeli/Jewish products. In today’s environment of overly left leaning, quite often antisemitic rhetoric, especially in Ann Arbor, what you do takes a great deal of guts. I respect you for that and for supporting Michigan economy at the same time.

  26. I admire you for standing up for what you believe is right, as opposed to looking out only for your bottom line. I wish there were more people like you – the world would be a better place with less scandal and corruption. I have always liked Hiller’s, for their high quality produce and meat (Hiller’s is THE ONLY place I’ll buy ground beef) as well as great customer service. I will never forget how nice it was to shop there when my son was an infant and your checkout staff would always offer to help me get my groceries to my car. Thanks for supporting Michigan families.

  27. Thanks, MG, for your kind words. I have always believed that a man’s character drives everything he does. As far as supporting Michigan families, there is nothing more important to me in the world than my three sons – I’m glad my staff has embodied the values I consider paramount. Jimmy

  28. Great job for making such a bold move. Hopefully this will inspire other business owners to take a stand as well. I realize it is difficult- many smokers get offended by actions like this. Although there is the exception, I feel that many smokers wish that they could quit, but find it too difficult. Perhaps if it became more and more difficult to obtain cigarettes/places to smoke, then it may just be the push that they need to quit.

  29. Pingback: Tips on Stopping Smoking

  30. Hi Mr. Hiller,
    I also commend you for the decision not to sell cigarettes. At 54, I’ve never been a smoker, probably because my Dad smoked all of my life in our home and cars, so the smell of smoke is intolerable to me. Great decision. I would also just like to thank your Northville store for sending me your weekly ad to my home in Brighton. The Northville store I think is the closest to me and to my work, so I get there when I can, but I wasn’t getting the flyers in any papers in Livingston County. So I asked one day while I was there and they have been kind enough to send one out every week since. I share it with my co-workers in Wixom. I sure wish that you would consider placing a store in Brighton!
    Thanks so much, Paula

  31. Looks like I may be the loner here in disagreeing with your ban on cigarettes. This is the land of the free and freedom of choice is a valuable thing. Who are you to censor our choices? The government does enough of that already. When will it stop? You may as well ban liquor as that is just as deadly and I have lost a loved one to the “secondhand” effects of a drunk driver . I should point out that I am not a smoker but take offense to your hypocrisy and limits on choice. I used to love Hillers but will now shop elsewhere.

  32. Missy-Store owners can sell what they want and customers can make their purchases wherever they choose. It is a far reach, and I would argue an incorrect stand, to say that this is a negative form of censorship. Hiller’s doesn’t sell tires for automobiles either, but we customers can choose to purchase those and other products not sold at Hillers at a different store. Your “choice” has not been negatively censored since you are able to purchases cigarettes at other stores. Your purchase options at Hillers have changed. This is a normal and healthy business function in our society.

    Jim-I applaud your choice to remove this particular merchandise selection from your store offerings.

  33. The more I learn about you the more impressed and interested I am. I’m lucky to have one of your stores in my neighborhood (two, actually). Thank you for being a member of MY community!!

  34. I commend you for the discontinuation of selling cigarettes.
    I am a breast ca. survivor, and i truly believe all the pollutants contribute to this and other diseases.
    I also have noticed your employees smoking outside and agree this is against your principals.
    Good for you.
    Sandy Goodman

  35. Jim I would like to congratulate you on being named a 2009 Home Town Hero. Your correct there are all kinds of vices out there and it is a personal choice to smoke or not. The tobacco industry knows what they are doing when it comes to marketing. It makes it very difficult for a parent when you have to worry about peer pressure – let alone all the advertising we are bombarded with every day. You set a great example as a business leader, as well as with your efforts at Hillers Markets to promote Michigan businesses. I know there are more business owners out there that do care about the communities they do work in and how their decisions do effect us all.

    I have some ideas that you may find interesting.

    Again congratulations
    Mark Kostes

  36. Jim,

    Thank you for refusing to sell cigarettes. Your parents would be very proud of you. I remember when your dad refused to sell Michigan milk when it was discovered the milk was contaminated with PCBs. He brought in milk from Ohio, I think. He would not harm children or adults with known harmful chemicals in milk. His life was threatened by Michigan dairy farmers and still he refused. He and your mom awakened at 2 a.m., drove a borrowed car; switched cars, used evasive techniques recommended by the police, and hoped he would get to work safely. Perhaps the greatest gift from your parents is your strength of character.


    Barbara Golds, a very long time Hiller’s shopper.

  37. Bravo to you, Jim. I have been a customer of yours for over 20 years. I love shopping at your Northville store where people are so good to me. I rarely shop anywhere else. This makes me want to shop at your stores even more.

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