CVS pharmacies announced in early February that its 7,600 stores would cease selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, a decision that will cost the corporation roughly $2 billion a year in revenues.
“Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” said Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark. “Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health.”
The change takes effect on Oct. 1.
CVS Caremark describes smoking as the leading cause of premature disease and death in the United States with more than 480,000 deaths annually. The prevalence of cigarette smoking has dropped from approximately 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 18 percent today, but CVS says the rate of reduction in smoking prevalence has stalled during the past decade.
The company’s website says 16 million people have at least one disease from smoking, and that nine in 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking.
Health care professionals have praised the pharmacy company’s move, noting that it is consistent with changes in the pharmacy industry.
Most chains are retooling themselves as an important part of the health care system by offering more counseling by pharmacists, an increasing array of wellness products and outreach to clinicians and health care centers. Pharmacies are moving into the treatment arena with retail health clinics that are gearing up to work with physicians to help with treating hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes, conditions exacerbated by smoking, according to a news release on the CVS site.
CVS pharmacy stores operates more than 800 “Minute Clinics,” which are medical clinics within the pharmacy locations, and offers online resources.
Merlo said that in addition to removing tobacco from its shelves, “we will undertake a robust national smoking cessation program.”
The announcement of the tobacco ban by the company prompted questions about whether or not CVS anticipated extending its ban to other products known to be unhealthy, such as candy, potato chips and alcohol. Merlo responded that such products, used in moderation, do not have the same adverse effects as the use of tobacco.
CVS’ tobacco decision is rightly being praised as the right thing to do. The paradox of a pharmacy selling products that have no redeeming value and are instead recognized universally as causing multiple diseases and death among users and second-hand smoke breathers is obvious. The further paradox: selling tobacco and carrying a dizzying array of smoking cessation aids.
Will other drugstores follow suit? That remains to be seen. In many communities, Walgreen’s and CVS stores are positioned across the street or across the intersection from each other. Smoking CVS customers after Oct. 1 may only have to cross the street to buy tobacco at one of 8,200-plus Walgreen’s or other drugstores unwilling to give up sales of such lucrative products.
CVS is likely losing some customers and will lose others as Oct. 1 draws near. However, the company may well add new customers who agree with the decision to stop selling tobacco and believe the company is taking the high road in the matter by dropping a line of profitable products.
It might be easy to question the motives of a successful retailer in making such an announcement. Society has reasons to be jaded about such matters. Any boardroom decision that threatens the corporate bottom line flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the high-stakes world of business.
Give the company credit for taking an initial step in aligning the higher good of customers with its purpose to improve and enhance the health and well-being of those who enter its doors, even if those customers have to steer past shelves of less-than-healthy snacks and drinks to get to the pharmacy counter.
Consumers would be wise to affirm the company’s tobacco ban by doing business with CVS whenever they can. The company is not perfect, but if “doing the right thing” in this case is shown not to radically hurt overall profits, the message will not go unnoticed by competitors who could, in turn, drop tobacco products themselves.
Back before 1970, when cigarettes were projected as “cool” in television and radio ads that influenced men, women and adolescents alike, the stigma of smoking was more limited. What the world knows about the effects of tobacco smoke and nicotine have convinced most people that smoking is simply a “life-threatening habit” that is extremely addictive, especially among middle- and high-school students.
The bottom line is that society doesn’t need the products. However, growers and tobacco companies have one of the most effective congressional lobbies to protect their financial interests, even though their products addict, cause disease and consistently kill. Not selling or buying them can only help.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.