CVS calling it quits on tobacco by Oct. 1

CVS Caremark Corp., the nation’s largest drugstore chain, says it’s going cold turkey.

The Woonsocket R.I.-based corporation announced Wednesday it will stop selling tobacco products in all 7,600 stores across the U.S. By Oct. 1, the pharmacy chain will become the first national drugstore to pull cigarettes from its shelves.

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

Analysts estimate the decision will cost CVS $2 billion in revenue out of the total expected $132.9 billion for 2014, according to Thomson Reuters.

Tobacco critics long have pointed out the irony of drugstores using cigarette sales to attract customers to buy health products. They hope other stores will jump on board.

Lori Wilken, a pharmacotherapist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Smoking Cessation Clinic, said, “I think other pharmacies need to get their priorities straight about their message to the public. Is it about making money or providing health?”

Target Corp. dropped cigarettes in 1996. Wegmans Food Market Inc. stopped carrying tobacco products in 2008. Anti-smoking activists hope that other large drugstores, like Deerfield-based Walgreen Co., will 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 Co. spokeswoman Emily Hartwig in an email. “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.”

Denise Ide, 54, started smoking at 18 when she was in a bar. Her addiction has been on and off over the last couple decades, but in the end, she said she knows it’s not a healthy habit.

“Missionwise, [the choice] was probably a good decision,” she said. “Less [access] for underage children at the corner CVS. I’m not opposed to it.”

But in terms of pulling cigarettes from all stores, Ide is not convinced of the new policy’s effectiveness.

“CVS is one fish in the pond,”  she said, “There’s other places to get them. Smokers will buy cigarettes if they’re smoking. They don’t care where.”

The pressure on major chain drugstores to stop selling cigarettes is nothing new. Dr. Alan Blum, director of the University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, said anti-smoking groups have begged CVS and Walgreen to quit selling smokes for many years.

“These companies should not be given any credit whatsoever,” he said, “It was something that could have been done and should have been done upwards of 20-30 years ago.”

American Lung Association spokesman James Martinez sees CVS’s move as an opportunity to discourage smoking, especially in youths. He said this as at least one piece of the puzzle.

“There’s no solution to curtailing tobacco use,” he said. “Even if another retailer doesn’t do this in a year or two, it doesn’t mean that the momentum has stopped or slowed down, it just means it’s going to take time.”

He said the mindset has changed. The health-conscious trend has influenced other companies such as fast-food restaurants’ efforts to add calorie and trans fat numbers to menus, apart from adjusting their menus to offer healthy options. For drugstores, CVS’s decision could lead to discussion about selling alcohol, junk food and other unhealthy products.

“We [as a country], are starting to notice what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Martinez said. “As a society, we’re becoming more conscious about our health and our safety.”

Mary Stutzman contributed to this story.

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