Why Does Target Need To Scan My Driver’s License To Sell Me Nicotine Patches?

Rodney’s son asked him to pick up some nicotine patches, so he did. Rodney, an ex-smoker himself, knows the agony of nicotine withdrawal, and was happy to help him out. Up to a point. He wasn’t happy enough to let Target scan his driver’s license and hold on to the information that he had bought nicotine patches when he hasn’t smoked in years. The thing is, his caution is entirely justified. He could very well land on a data broker’s list of recent smokers.

The manager on duty insisted first that requiring ID was a legal requirement, then a store policy. The latter may have been true, but that means Rodney can just take his business to another store. So he did.

Rodney writes:

My son, who is trying cast off the vile tobacco habit, called to ask me to pick up a box of nicotine patches that he is using to eases his craving. Since I would do nearly anything to help him quit smoking I tossed a box of the patches in my shopping cart.

At the checkout, the nice lady (really!) asked me for my driver’s license. Assuming that she wanted to verify my age (Wow – being carded at 57) I showed it to her. She then said that she needed to scan the stripe. I declined and told her that I’ve proven my identity and my age and I would prefer to NOT have them record my details. The article in the New York Times about Target’s data mining practices that The Consumerist linked to some time ago was a factor in my refusal, too.

She then called over a manager who appeared to have gotten her makeup tips from RuPaul to override the register by inputting my date of birth. The manager then informed me that it was the law to scan my license. Before I could complete my rebuttal, she changed her story that it was store policy whereupon she snatched up the box of patches and left the checkout. The clerk was obviously horrified and mouthed an “I’m sorry” to me. I simply smiled and told her that Target could keep everything else, too.

I went to a nearby Wal-Mart for the same item and had no problem with the purchase. The register simply asked the clerk to verify if the customer was over 18. She did so without documentation. Perhaps my gray hair was a clue.

Maybe my stand was pig-headed (my spouse seems to think so) but as an ex-smoker myself, I don’t want to risk winding up on some database of smokers. I have no way of knowing how this could be used against me during a health insurance claim or background investigation.

Thanks Consumerist! Keep fighting the good fight.

Of course, if you make a big fuss about privacy and refuse to hand over your driver’s license, then pay with a credit or debit card, that defeats the point entirely.

Does Rodney sound paranoid? He isn’t. It’s not far-fetched at all. The Wall Street Journal reported not long ago that health insurers are quietly buying spending data on their customers, the same information that marketers collect, in order to look at spending habits and make predictions of future health care costs for employers.

Are you suddenly spending a lot of money in plus-size clothing stores? That’s an indication that you’ve put on weight. Dropping a lot of money in liquor stores or on skydiving trips? Data brokers can tell you who is buying a lot of painkillers, who buys more vitamins and supplements, who are frequent dieters, and who takes part in sporty hobbies like running and cycling.

How the Insurer Knows You Just Stocked Up on Ice Cream and Beer [Wall Street Journal]
Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You [ProPublica]