Fred Mayer back in the day
Fred Mayer back in the day

Q&A: An old-school pharmacist with very modern opinions

Pharmacist Fred Mayer, 86, is the CEO of Pharmacists Planning Services Inc., and the former owner of Sausalito Pharmacy, where he worked for over 35 years and became a prominent fixture in the community — as much for his friendly, loquacious manner as for his public health advocacy. Through PPSI, Mayer launched effective education and awareness campaigns — his earliest include the Great American Smokeout in 1970 (later adopted by the American Cancer Society) and National Condom Week.

Mayer, who lives in San Rafael, is still busy as ever — mentoring pharmacy students at Jewish-rooted Touro University California in Vallejo, speaking out, writing op-eds on issues of concern, and spending time with his four children and six grandchildren.

J.: What is PPSI?

Fred Mayer: PPSI is a nonprofit public health consumer pharmacy organization. We began our consumer awareness campaigns in 1955. We wanted safety caps on prescription drug vials to prevent accidental poisoning, [we] started the Great American Smokeout [and] the “pregnant man” [condom campaign] was one of our most famous ones.

You support medical marijuana, but urge pharmacists to ask patients if they are using CBD — the cannabis compound that does not get the user high — and to educate them about potentially dangerous drug interactions.

Fred Mayer
Fred Mayer

Marijuana is good [to curb] nausea and vomiting. It’s very good for severe seizures and for sleep and sometimes for arthritis. But we’re seeing old people ending up in the hospital because they mixed CBD with prescription drugs like Coumadin or warfarin. Some of the product is not being tested, some of it there’s no oversight, sometimes what’s in the product is not on the label. People are taking this stuff because they think it’s a miracle drug. Also, we are against women using medical marijuana while breastfeeding.

What do you and PSSI think of the legalization of recreational marijuana?

We were against Prop. 64. I do not like it being sold to kids; the brain is still developing until age 25. Also, it’s very toxic to animals. Dogs and cats will eat anything they find, like [joints] and edibles.

You started working at Geary Drugs when you were a teenager, then went to the UCSF School of Pharmacy before getting your master’s in public health administration from UC Berkeley. Did that early experience set your career path?

I always knew I wanted to be a pharmacist. In the old days you could walk into any pharmacy and talk to a pharmacist. I was called a druggist. We were trusted, available and accessible. No appointment was necessary. I always thought we were the people on the block!

Are today’s pharmacists underappreciated?

Nobody knows anybody anymore. You stand in line and get your medicine and you’re out.

Pharmacists are not getting reimbursement for what they’re doing. They get paid for counting, pilling and typing. The average cost of a prescription drug is $94.82. Managed care and the insurance industry have taken over the system. We need universal health care and we need to lower the price of prescription drugs.

Tell us a little about your childhood.

My father died when I was 6 months old. I was brought up in orphanages — five years in the home for Jewish children in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was born, and five years in Denver, Colorado, when my mother got a job there. My mother couldn’t [afford to] take care of my sister and me. We moved to San Francisco in 1943 and I began selling newspapers at Hunters Point.

Have you always been an advocate?

I identify with the poor. I’ve always been an advocate, yes. Coming up poor you’ve got nothing to lose. You can do anything.

What about your membership at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael?

My late wife, Jackie, and I were charter members of Rodef and served on the board. We used to hold High Holiday services at the Fairfax Theater. One time, I blew the shofar and nothing came out … Someone else blew it forever after. I love our rabbis — all of them are women. When I had quadruple bypass surgery, Rabbi [Stacy] Friedman came to see me [at the hospital]. She blew the shofar, tekiah, and everyone came running.

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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.