Cigarette sales ban at CVS seen as good for health and business

Decision makes the nation's second largest drugstore chain a 'standard bearer' for smoking cessation services
CVS drugstore
A view of cigarettes and other tobacco products on sale behind the counter at a CVS Pharmacy store in New York on Feb 6, 2014. CVS will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products as of Oct. 1, 2014, making it the first chain of national pharmacies to remove cigarettes from shelves. Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa via AP

The announcement this week that the nation’s second largest drugstore chain will stop selling cigarettes was hailed by public health leaders as not just a major step for anti-smoking efforts but a savvy business decision that other pharmacy chains will likely follow.

CVS Caremark said Wednesday that it will ban the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products at its more than 7,600 CVS/pharmacy stores across the United States by Oct. 1. It is the first national pharmacy chain to do so.

Restricting access to cigarettes is a tested tactic to reduce tobacco use among those who do smoke and discourage nonsmokers from taking up the habit, said anti-smoking experts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“One of the main things we coach people on who are trying to quit is to get rid of their cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays, etc. because if they’re readily available, it is easy to slip back into smoking,” said Aileen Ardizon of the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Services at Fred Hutch. Ending cigarette sales at the neighborhood drugstore fits that strategy.

True, people may go elsewhere to buy cigarettes, said Ardizon. “But what we do know is that cravings typically only last a couple of minutes, so if they stop at a neighborhood pharmacy like CVS to get cigarettes and can’t buy them there, it may be likely that their craving will pass by the time they find another place to stop and buy cigarettes.”

‘It’s a big deal’
The announcement itself serves an important public health message, said Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist in Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division.

“This kind of major announcement raises awareness of the problem of smoking in the U.S.—there are still 42 million people in the United States who are smokers,” Bricker said. “When a retail outlet makes a decision like this, it really does get people’s attention to the issue of smoking in the U.S. and the need for bold approaches to help get people to quit and prevent young people from starting. It is a big deal.”

Public health efforts have sharply reduced smoking among adults, from 42 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012. Still, tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans annually, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smoking’s role in lung cancer and heart disease is well known.  A surgeon general’s report released last month adds numerous other illnesses to the toll, including diabetes, colorectal and liver cancers, erectile dysfunction, ectopic pregnancy, vision loss, rheumatoid arthritis, and impaired immune function.

One of the reasons CVS executives stated for initiating the ban is the growing role their company and other pharmacies are playing in the evolving health care marketplace—a role inconsistent, they said, with selling tobacco products.

Leader of the pack
And that, said Bricker, is what may well compel other pharmacy chains to follow suit.

“Drugstores are beginning to bill themselves as miniature clinics,” Bricker said. “They want to be able to provide some minor health care services to people. Smoking cessation is one of them—it’s a very important preventive service. It’s a business opportunity, and sales of cigarettes are inconsistent with that opportunity.”

The Affordable Care Act is beginning to provide funding for smoking cessation, Bricker noted, which will build over the next five years. Revenue from such services will help replace the $2 billion a year CVS says it earns from the sale of cigarettes and other items that cigarette buyers purchase.

 “When customers associate a store like CVS with quitting smoking—which they will now—they will seek out smoking cessation services there,” Bricker said.  “CVS will now be seen as the standard bearer for smoking cessation services in drug stores.  That gives them a huge advantage.”

In January, Walgreens teamed with GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare to launch a free online program called Sponsorship to Quit, aimed at helping smokers quit tobacco. 

Bricker called the effort “a step forward,” but predicted that pressure will build on Walgreens and other national chains to stop selling cigarettes.

“The customer will see the contradiction,” he said. “They won’t buy it.”

Follow Mary Engel on Twitter @Engel140.

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