How CVS’s Decision to Quit Selling Tobacco Could Spur Real Change for Smokers

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In a move that has stunned most onlookers, thrilled public health advocates, and left some smokers confused, CVS Caremark, the owner of CVS Pharmacies, announced in April that it would stop selling tobacco products, including cigarettes and chewing tobacco. The move comes at a time of increased public awareness about the dangers of smoking, and in a political context in which 39 states have enacted laws that curtail or completely ban public smoking. The decision may be a popular one. Gallup reported in 2011 that, for the first time in history, a majority (60%) of Americans supported public smoking bans.

 

CVS’s Plan

CVS is the second-largest pharmacy in the United States, with more than 7,600 stores. The company plans to begin phasing out tobacco products immediately, and promises to be completely tobacco-free no later than October 1, 2014. CVS argues that its large reach may help smokers quit, and emphasizes that the company’s primary focus has always been on its customers health. “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…Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” Larry J. Merlo, the company’s president and CEO,  said in a statement announcing the change.

Although a tobacco-free CVS is a public health dream, the decision doesn’t necessarily help the company’s bottom line. It estimates that it takes in two billion dollars a year in tobacco sales – accounting for nearly two percent of the company’s total sales. CVS’s chief medical officer, Dr. Troyen A. Brennan, said in a public statement that the company hopes to increase sales of gum and other products designed to help smokers quit. Some smokers’ rights groups are already protesting the move, but CVS is standing strong. .

 

Why CVS’s Decision Matters

As a pharmacy, a cornerstone of CVS’s business model is good health. Wellness experts across the country have long emphasized that people should not be able to buy tobacco products at the same time that they buy prescriptions designed to treat smoking-induced conditions such as emphysema. Merlo echoed these sentiments in his public statement, explaining, “We believe that tobacco products have no place in a setting where health care is being delivered.”

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Pharmacies account for only four percent of total tobacco sales nationwide, so it might seem like CVS’s decision is little more than a symbolic gesture. But by eliminating tobacco sales, CVS makes cigarettes just a bit harder to get – particularly in rural areas where there are few or no convenience stores.

Moreover, the company helps draw attention to the risk of smoking tobacco. Smokers who go to the store planning to buy cigarettes will get a subtle reminder that quitting is the best choice when they learn that the company has stopped supplying tobacco products. Dr. Brennan argues that when cigarettes are less convenient to procure, smokers – particularly those who aren’t yet fully addicted – may consider quitting, saying in a public statement, “Convenience and accessibility is a major issue, especially among younger smokers.”

Although CVS could lose some profit as a result of its decision, it’s just as likely that an end to tobacco sales will lead to booming business. The chain has already received hundreds of letters of support, and thousands of supportive op-eds. Customers who care about good health may be willing to put forth extra effort to shop at CVS, and health professionals may even encourage their patients to shop at the pharmacy chain.

CVS’s decision makes a strong statement about the role of pharmacies in encouraging good health choices. The company’s choice also puts pressure on other businesses to follow suit, and if pharmacies nationwide stopped carrying cigarettes, it could make a real dent in the availability of tobacco products. In response to CVS’s announcement, public health advocates are already putting pressure on other businesses to change their policies. This week, 26 state attorneys general have sent letters to other pharmacies, including Wal-Mart and Walgreen’s, requesting that they follow suit

 

How Cigarette Availability Feeds the Addiction

Although cigarette smoking is ultimately the result of nicotine addiction, nicotine addiction doesn’t account for the whole picture. Smoking is a habit, and for many smokers, it’s an unthinking one. Smokers frequently reach for the next cigarette even when they’re not craving nicotine, and sometimes without even thinking about the cigarette. Some smokers can get halfway through a cigarette without even realizing they’re smoking! But CVS’s decision forces smokers to think about their choices. A smoker who heads to CVS to buy her latest pack without even thinking about what she’s doing now has to make a choice: consider quitting or drive to another location.

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When cigarettes are harder to access, smokers are forced to decide to smoke rather than just reflexively do so. For some smokers, CVS’s plan could even make smoking an untenable financial choice. A smoker who lives in an isolated area and has to drive an extra five or 10 miles to get his next fix may very well consider smoking. Because CVS plans to devise a big push to sell quit smoking products, smokers may also get a reminder that there is help to quit smoking every time they shop at the chain.

 

The Kerry Gaynor Method recognizes that smoking is so much more than an addiction. It’s a lifestyle and a habit, and cultural norms – including what pharmacies choose to carry – can affect smokers’ feelings about their decision to smoke. If you’re a smoker affected by CVS’s decision and you’re ready to quit, we can help you. Learn more about our method here [insert link].

 

Roxana Saidi

In June 2011, Roxana became the third founding team member of The Kerry Gaynor Method. Kerry’s mission to rid the world of cigarettes was a very personal one as many of her friends and acquaintances had already quit smoking thanks to Kerry. Roxana regards her role at the company not as a position, but instead as a leader in a movement to eradicate death, suffering and illness due to cigarettes.

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