Healthcare Business News

CVS wins plaudits for vowing to stop tobacco sales

By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: February 5, 2014 - 6:45 pm ET

Drugstore giant CVS Caremark's decision to stop selling tobacco products at its stores is being hailed as a victory among public health advocates, a move they predict will force CVS competitors to follow suit as they look to play a growing part in the delivery of the country's healthcare.

Major competitors, for the moment though, are not rushing to join CVS in the move away from selling tobacco products.

“This decision underscores our role in the evolving healthcare system,” said CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis. “Now more than ever, pharmacies are on the front line of healthcare, becoming more involved in chronic disease management to help patients with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. All of these conditions are made worse by smoking and cigarettes have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered.”

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The Woonsocket, R.I.-based retailer Wednesday announced plans to discontinue the sale of cigarettes and all other tobacco products from its more than 7,600 locations across the country beginning Oct. 1, citing a desire to further distinguish itself as an alternative healthcare provider.

In 2000 the company launched its MinuteClinic division, operating some of the first retail clinics where patients can get an array of medical services, from treatment of minor skin conditions and injuries to getting physical examinations, vaccinations and wellness screenings. There are more than 800 MinuteClinic locations, staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, according to the company's website.

The decision was met with praise by health advocates, who credited CVS for providing clarity to what many critics have viewed as a conflicting message on the part of the retailer and other drugstores who promote wellness while selling a product that kills close to half a million Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Even just the idea of a pharmacy—even if it doesn't have a clinic—is supposed to be a place where you get products that keep you healthy, or help treat any problems that you have,” said Joanna Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I think other types of retailers might re-think whether they should be selling cigarettes at all.”

In a written statement, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called CVS' decision an “unprecedented step in the retail industry,” adding that the new policy, “will have considerable impact.”

“We need an all-hands-on-deck effort to take tobacco products out of the hands of America's young generation, and to help those who are addicted to quit,” Sebelius said. “Today's CVS Caremark announcement helps to bring our country closer to achieving a tobacco-free generation. I hope others will follow their lead in this important new step to curtail tobacco use.”

Similarly, the American Medical Association also lauded the company's decision, saying the move was in line with the organization's efforts to have tobacco products removed from pharmacies nationwide.

“We commend CVS for putting public health ahead of their bottom line and recognizing the need for pharmacies to focus on supporting health and wellness instead of contributing to disease and death caused by tobacco use,” said Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven, AMA president.

Company executives said the decision is expected to cost an estimated $2 billion a year in sales, which may be a reason competing drugstore chains Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp., did not rush to follow suit.

"We have been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs,” said Walgreen spokeswoman Emily Hartwig in a written statement. “We will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want, while also helping to educate them and providing smoking cessation products and alternatives that help to reduce the demand for tobacco products.”

Rite Aid, like Walgreen, continually “evaluates” its products to ensure they meet the needs of customers, and offers a variety of smoking cessation products, said spokeswoman Kristin Kellum. Rite Aid pharmacists are available to counsel people who want to quit smoking, she said.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHSjohnson

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