The CVS/Caremark pharmacy chain advanced the cause of good health in America when it announced that its 7,600 stores would stop selling cigarettes next year.
In making the announcement, Larry Merlo, who’s president and CEO of CVS, called it “simply the right thing to do… The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose — helping people on their path to better health.”
He’s right. He’s also right that smokers will simply find other places to buy cigarettes. In terms of percentages, drug stores are small purveyors of cigarettes, selling less than 4 percent of the total. And although CVS expects to lose $2 billion a year in dropping cigarettes, that’s not as big a hit as it sounds. That’s less than 2 percent of company sales, which last year exceeded $120 billion, and the drug store chain will doubtless replace tobacco products with other products, perhaps with a greater profit margin.
Walgreen, the nation’s largest drug store chain (including two in Manhattan), hasn’t indicated whether it will follow suit, though its top officials say they’re reviewing their policy. Nor is CVS the first drug store chain in the United States to quit selling cigarettes. Twenty years ago, in March 1993, Downeast Pharmacy — a 17-store chain in Maine and Vermont — stopped selling cigarettes (and alcohol and violent toys.)
That doesn’t make the move by CVS, which has 10 stores in Kansas but none in Manhattan, irrelevant. On the contrary, CVS’s move underscores the larger message that smoking is not an accepted behavior. Dr. Troyen A. Brennan, CVS’s chief medical officer, and Dr. Steven A. Schroeder, head of U.C.-San Francisco’s Smoking Cessation Center, consider CVS’s action part of the “denormalizing” of smoking. Other moves in this process include the increasing reluctance of companies to hire smokers, bans on outdoor smoking in New York and some other large cities and the heavy tax increases many state legislatures have approved on tobacco products.
The reasons are well known. Smoking, as warnings on packs have long stated, is harmful to human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking causes almost one in five deaths in this country, and treatment for illnesses associated with smoking costs $96 billion a year, and is rising. More than 480,000 Americans each year die from smoking-related illnesses.
CVS’s decision won’t likely have much impact on those numbers, at least not directly. But it is one more clear voice spreading the word that smoking is harmful and should be considered unacceptable.