CVS announces it will stop selling cigarettes by Oct. 1

Challiyil Eswaramangalath Vipin, Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON, February 5, 2014—CVS Caremark, the nation’s largest integrated pharmacy company, announced Wednesday that it will stop selling cigarettes and tobacco products in its more than 7,600 stores nationwide before October 1, 2014.

The announcement came at a press release where CVS revealed its plan to become the first major U.S. pharmacy chain to make such a move, increasing pressure on other large retailers like Walgreens and Rite Aid to do the same.

The Rhode Island-based company said that the decision will result in a two percent or $2 billion cut in annual revenues for CVS, but reiterated that the determination was made in line with efforts to reposition the company as a healthcare provider and not just a retail chain.

“Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health,” said Larry J. Merlo, President and CEO, CVS Caremark. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., claiming over 440,000 lives every year–49,000 from second-hand smoke exposure—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Around 19 percent of U.S. adults currently smoke, compared to 42 percent in 1965.

A viewpoint also published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), credits tobacco taxation, smoke-free public areas and public support for cessation programs with the drastic reduction in cigarette smoking, but affirms that more intervention is needed.

Direct annual medical costs from smoking are estimated at $132 billion, accompanied by an additional $157 billion in lost productivity, according to recent estimates by the U.S. department of Health and Human Services.

“Selling tobacco products goes against everything the company stands for,” said Merlo in a conference call with journalists on Wednesday morning.

Supporting CVS’ decision, the JAMA viewpoint argues that reducing the availability of cigarettes and tobacco products is another step in reducing overall tobacco use. According to a study cited in the viewpoint, reducing availability of cigarettes may reduce smoking among young people, calling it “a key intervention, given the number of smokers who start before 21 years of age.”

The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world where cigarettes and tobacco products are sold in pharmacies.

“Advocates have long questioned the juxtaposition of the distribution of medications for promoting health with the sale of the single most deadly consumer product,” write viewpoint co-authors Dr. Troyen A. Brennan and Dr. Steven A. Schroeder. “Making cigarettes available in pharmacies in essence ‘renormalizes’ the product by sending the subtle message that it cannot be all that unhealthy if it is available for purchase where medicines are sold.”

In 2010, the American Pharmacists Association recommended pharmacies stop selling tobacco products, urging the ban be implemented in any place where prescriptions are filled, including grocery stores and other chain retailers with a pharmacy. The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Lung Association also support the ban.

CVS executives met with tobacco company representatives Tuesday to discuss the move. In response, the major companies announced that they are not alarmed, as CVS makes up only about two percent of tobacco industry sales, according to analysis by Morgan Stanley.

As pharmacies like CVS move toward treating patients as opposed to selling to consumers, the move seemed like the next logical step, according to CVS Caremark.

“As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care through our pharmacists and nurse practitioners,” said CEO Larry Merlo Wednesday. “The significant action we’re taking today by removing tobacco products from our retail shelves further distinguishes us in how we are serving our patients, clients and health care providers and better positions us for continued growth in the evolving health care marketplace.”

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