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Posted on February 7, 2014 at 12:41 AM

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

This week the second largest pharmacy chain in the U.S. announced that it would no longer sell tobacco products. The move is hailed as a step forward for preventing tobacco-deaths. The American Cancer Society, members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and President Obama praised the company for this decision. CVS says that it is in the health care business and tobacco products cause nearly half a million deaths every year.

Is this move likely to change Americans’ habits? Drug store sales account for only 3.6 percent of all tobacco sales (one-half of all sales is from gas stations). And of course there is nothing to stop a patron from going down the street to purchase tobacco at a competitor, gas station, or mini-mart.

The move is bold because it is rare for a company to go against its own economic interest. In the short term, the move will cost CVS $2 billion (1.6 percent) in sales. Tobacco is a big money maker.  Certainly the free press coverage in every national and local media outlet in the country is not hurting the bottom line. One is forced to ask the question as to why it took the company 50 years to reach this decision. After all, the negative effects of tobacco have been known for 50 years and anti-smoking are nearly as old. In fact, CVS was founded the same year that U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry announced that smoking was a major factor in mortality and that efforts should be made to prevent tobacco use.

A second question is why did CVS call out only tobacco? Does this mean that CVS will also cease to sell other “dangerous” products? Obesity is responsible for over 300,000 U.S. deaths each year, but CVS is still selling candy bars. Many CVS stores sell alcohol (where it’s legal) even though alcohol use causes 88,000 deaths each year.  If a person or company announces that they are promoting health, then do they get to pick and choose what health they support, or should they be held accountable to walking the talk?

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