Fifty years ago, the drugstore giant CVS/Caremark came into being. Also 50 years ago, Surgeon General Luther Terry released the first federal government report linking smoking with disease. Today, the events have coalesced: CVS, one of the nation’s top retail pharmacy chains (Walgreen is #1, in number of retail stores; CVS, in overall sales), has announced that the shelves of its 7,600 stores will be tobacco-free by October 1 of this year.
Since the large-scale decision to put walk-in clinics in retail drugstores about five years ago, the hypocrisy of promoting better health/wellness and selling cigarettes under the same roof has become painfully obvious. Especially to pharmacists, who are often forced to ring up both products on the same charge.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Quitting immediately reduces respiratory symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Proven long-term consequences of smoking include developing lung and other types of cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, and stroke, all of which may be prevented by cessation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 toxic chemicals, of which approximately 70 are known cancer-causing agents. (See chart from HHS.)
Today’s decision makes CVS the first U.S. drugstore megachain to drop tobacco. Retailers like Target quietly dropped the product years ago. Convenience stores like 7-11 and gas station quick-stops now sell about 75% of the cigarettes consumed in the U.S.A., according RBC Capital Markets analyst Nik Modi, as cited by Reuters. Nevertheless, the drugstore policy change is expected to have a major effect, particularly if it continues to propel a popular movement.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, views the development as “an unprecedented step in the retail industry.” President Obama, himself a former smoker, reacted to the decision as having a “profoundly positive impact on the health of our country.”
The American Medical Association has heartily endorsed the action by CVS. AMA’s journal today pointed out that tobacco use causes $132 billion in medical costs and $157 billion in lost productivity each year. The American Heart Association is also on board.
As well as killing almost half a million Americans each year, smoking disrupts American business in a big way. In June 2013, the journal Tobacco Control reported that it costs employers over $5,800 more–in terms of absenteeism, presenteesim, smoking breaks, healthcare costs, and pension benefits–to hire a smoker than a nonsmoker.
“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.”
The company will not suffer because of this decision. CVS estimates the move will only affect 1.6% of its sales, a portion that may well be made up by pharmaceutical leadership in health care. The company has about 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners in its quick-stop medical clinics. The retail clinics will grow at a rate of 25-30% over the next few years (doubling between 2012 and 2015) according to an Accenture report cited by The New York Times.
But here’s the real bottom line from Dr. Richard Wender, Chief Cancer Control Officer of the American Cancer Society. “It’s going to force every [customer] to pause and say, ‘Why isn’t my CVS selling cigarettes anymore?'” Wender’s conclusion: “Every time we make it more difficult to purchase a pack of cigarettes, someone quits.”