CVS implements tobacco ban, hopes other companies follow
When CVS customers reach check-out, they will notice that cigarettes are no longer being sold. CVS is the second-largest pharmacy chain after Walgreens and the first major chain to pull cigarettes and other tobacco products from its shelves.
Earlier this year, CVS had announced its decision to ban the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products in each of its 7,700 retail locations. This ban would initially go into effect Oct. 1; however, CVS was able to make the shift a few weeks early.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 480,000 Americans die each year from cigarette smoking, including the 42,000 people who die from secondhand smoke. Pharmacy senior Jake Li said he thinks that this shift will make CVS a more successful healthcare provider.
“Smoking cessation is a growing global initiative, which has made a big impact on our society. Just recently, the University of Houston was declared a tobacco-free campus,” Li said. “I wouldn’t say it is necessary for retail pharmacies to cut sales of tobacco, but there are plenty of reasons why they should.”
Matthew Myers, president of the Washington-based campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, praised CVS for its decision by saying that CVS is an example of a corporation “leading and setting a new standard.”
CVS manages healthcare benefits for its 65 million members and is currently running 900 walk-in medical clinics. Company executives felt the sale of tobacco conflicted with their mission as a healthcare company.
However, this decision was also based on personal factors, as two of CVS’s top CEOs have lost loved ones to tobacco related deaths. CEO Larry Merlo lost his father to a tobacco-related cancer, and Executive Vice President of CVS Health Helene Foulkes’s mother died from lung cancer.
Biochemistry freshman Jenny Nguyen said she agrees with CVS’s decision to ban the sale of tobacco products.
“A pharmacy is supposed to be focused on improving health,” Nguyen said. “Getting rid of cigarettes at CVS might be a big step into getting rid of cigarettes in America.”
In addition to the removal of tobacco from its shelves, CVS will also launch a smoking-cessation campaign to help smokers quit. The program provides members with a “readiness to quit” assessment, education about the effects of smoking, medication support and coaching to help people stay motivated and avoid relapse.
While CVS’s decision is laudable, some question how effective this shift will be. CVS conducted a study of 900 households in both Boston and San Francisco after bans had been put into effect. Their research shows that the number of purchasers of tobacco products went down by 13 percent.
Ellen Hahn, who is part of the Tobacco Policy Research Program at the University of Kentucky, said that she thinks this decision will have a limited effect. Hahn said that tobacco control strategies currently in place, such as price and tax increases and smoking bans, are more effective.
“Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, and I think banning tobacco is a good step toward smoking cessation,” Li said. “I would imagine most smokers are still going to find a place to buy tobacco, but (CVS’s decision) does send out a good message.”
Audrey Silk, founder of the New York-based national smokers’ rights group Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, said she thinks while CVS has the right to change what it sells, the tobacco ban is a “perception war.”
“Tobacco is legal. They’re engaging in public coercion by not selling cigarettes,” Silk said.
CVS does not face significant losses by cutting the sale of tobacco products, as cigarettes account for approximately $2 billion of CVS’s annual sales, constituting about 2 percent of the company’s total revenue, which was $126 billion in 2013.
From a financial standpoint, CVS has more to gain in the health care industry versus retail, the latter of which pharmacies can fall under as they sell products other than prescription medications. CVS’s pharmacy services already make up more than half of its revenue, so this rebranding is a helpful marketing strategy that can expand that part of the company.
“(CVS’s decision) really does improve CVS’s image, but I think a single small step helps at least,” Nguyen said. “I started thinking more highly of CVS after learning about them getting rid of cigarettes.”
Regardless of CVS’s true motivation in banning the sale of tobacco products, this shift is a positive step for retail pharmacies. Granted, people can still buy cigarettes at other places, but if smokers decide to participate in CVS’s new smoking cessation program, it can still have positive effects.
Whether or not other major chains will take the lead from CVS is still unclear, but if CVS is able to make a significant impact, it could influence other chains to make the shift as well.
Opinion columnist Rama Yousef is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected]