The decision by CVS pharmacies nationwide to quit selling cigarettes and other tobacco products is unlikely to significantly reduce the number of smokers. Customers can just buy their cigarettes somewhere else.
But CVS deserves credit for forsaking the hypocrisy of offering health-care services and products, and selling the deadliest product on the planet from the same store. And, from a practical standpoint, company officials peering into the future also no doubt are betting on a decline in the popularity of smoking.
But make no mistake, CVS is making a financial sacrifice – although a relatively small one – now for the sake of principle. About $1.5 billion of the company’s $123 billion in annual sales comes from tobacco.
In addition, CVS will lose sales to people who come into the pharmacy to pick up cigarettes and buy other products while they are there. CVS officials estimate that taking cigarettes off the shelves will cost the company another $500 million, so it will lose about $2 billion total in annual sales because of the decision to quit selling tobacco.
But financial issues aside, selling tobacco represents a contradiction in the company’s long-term mission of becoming a health care provider. CVS and other drugstore chains have been adding in-store clinics and expanding their health care services in recent years.
Some of those clinics now help people manage chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. In addition, CVS is unique among many of its peers in drawing most of its revenue from its pharmacy benefits management business, which runs prescription drug plans for employers, insurers and other customers.
CVS also has sought to team up with hospital groups and doctor practices to help deliver and monitor patient care. CVS executives no doubt have asked themselves how they could continue to provide programs to help customers reduce their high blood pressure while also selling them cigarettes, one of the biggest contributors to hypertension.
Some might ask where this will end. Should pharmacies feel compelled to quit selling alcohol or sugary soft drinks, which also can contribute to health problems?
That might be an issue CVS and other pharmacies will have to address in the future. For now, though, tobacco represents the only one of those products without a safe level of consumption. Most people can drink a can of Coke without endangering themselves but even one cigarette is harmful.
Other approaches, such as high tobacco taxes and public smoking prevention and cessation programs, have a proven track record of reducing the number of smokers, especially among young people. South Carolina’s state tobacco tax, although it recently was raised from 7 cents to 57 cents per pack, still is 93 cents less than the national average. And South Carolina spends almost nothing on programs to prevent young people from starting the habit or helping smokers to quit.
Increasing those efforts would do more to reduce the number of smokers than the CVS decision. Nonetheless, it’s a responsible decision by CVS and one that sends the message that the company is sincere about its mission of promoting better health.
If nothing else, CVS is setting a good example of corporate responsibility that other companies would do well to follow.