CVS becomes first major retailer to stop selling cigarettes

Decision drew praise from health advocates, White House

CVS Caremark on Wednesday became the first major pharmacy retail chain to announce that it will stop selling tobacco products at its 7,600 retail stores by Oct. 1.

In addition, the chain said it plans to launch an in-store and online anti-smoking campaign this spring, but the company did not elaborate on the program.

Although CVS officials acknowledged that the decision could cost the company billions of dollars in revenue annually, observers say the move could boost CVS's recent efforts to expand its pharmacies and position them as a primary provider of health care services. In addition, the chain could reach more profitable agreements with hospitals and insurers.

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CVS Pharmacy President Helena Foulkes said, "It was very important to us that, as we're working with doctors and hospital systems and health plans, that they see us as an extension of their services," adding, "It's virtually impossible to be in the tobacco business when you want to be a health care partner to the health care system."

American Cancer Society CMO Otis Brawley echoed that statement, saying, "It just doesn't make sense, if you exist to promote health and you sell one of the major causes of death in the U.S."

Will others follow CVS's lead?

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the move could help reduce tobacco use. Although smoking rates and cigarette sales have declined dramatically over the last few decades, tobacco remains the top cause of preventable disease and death, and new evidence suggests it contributes to more illness and fatalities than previously thought.

President Obama in a statement said the move "sets a powerful example" that could help the federal government's "efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs—ultimately saving lives and protecting untold numbers of families from pain and heartbreak for years to come."

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a separate statement described CVS's decision as "an unprecedented step in the retail industry" and urged other retailers to follow the company's lead. She said, "[HHS] applauds CVS Caremark ... for their leadership in helping to make the next generation tobacco-free."

According to the Wall Street Journal, other major retailers are reconsidering their policies toward tobacco sales. Walgreen spokesperson Michael Polzin says the company has "been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs" (Wahba/Steenhuysen, Reuters, 2/5; Kliff, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 2/5; Aleccia, NBC News, 2/5; Martin/Esterl, Wall Street Journal, 2/5).

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