Why the second-largest U.S. drugstore quit smoking

CVS sees the hypocrisy of health clinics selling cigarettes.
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

Your doctor's office doesn't sell cigarettes, so why should your MinuteClinic?

CVS Caremark must have realized the hypocrisy of stores housing pharmacies and health clinics that also sell the "single most deadly consumer product." Today, the second-largest drugstore in the United States announced that by October 1 it will end sales of cigarettes and tobacco-related products at all of its 7,600-plus U.S. stores. 

Not only will the drugstore end tobacco sales, but it plans to actively begin a "a robust national smoking cessation program" that will provide information and treatment on smoking cessation, along with online resources to help people quit smoking.

The move makes CVS the first national pharmacy chain to voluntarily end tobacco sales.

"CVS Caremark is continually looking for ways to promote health and reduce the burden of disease," said CVS Caremark Chief Medical Officer Troyen A. Brennan, in a press release. "Stopping the sale of cigarettes and tobacco will make a significant difference in reducing the chronic illnesses associated with tobacco use."

Though by that logic, as Matthew Yglesias points out, the retailer would also phase out its sales of sugary drinks and junk food

Still, the financial impact that ending tobacco sales will have on the drugstore won't be small, a loss of about $2 billion in revenue or about 1.5 percent of annual revenue. 

But expect CVS to more than make up for the loses. That's because CVS is rapidly expanding its MinuteClinics, walk-in clinics staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants to treat common illnesses. The company already has more than 770 of the clinics in its stores. And, as Forbes reports, the company is banking on the fact that, with more people covered by health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, physicians will be in short supply. As Andy Sussman, CVS’ chief medical officer, told Forbes "In many of our markets, nearly half of patients don’t have a physician."

So in addition to being a nice feel-good PR move, it's also a savvy business strategy. It's hard for customers to take a health care service seriously when cigarettes are being sold at the checkout line. 

The question is: who's next?

But even if all pharmacies stop selling tobacco products it wouldn't put a huge dent in reducing the number of places where those products are sold. According to the Wall Street Journal, drugstores only represented 4 percent of the share of retail cigarette sales in 2012. But, as an editorial published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association argued, the impact of ending tobacco sales at pharmacies will be in "denormalizing" tobacco use.

[I]f people understand that retail outlets that plan to promote health, provide pharmacy services, and house retail clinics are no longer going to sell tobacco products, the social unacceptability of tobacco use will be substantially reinforced—indeed, the continued sale would appear to sanction the most unhealthy habit a person can maintain.
And, in theory, that would only help continue the trend of plummeting cigarette sales in the U.S.

Photo: Flickr/pirate johnny

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