CVS Health demonstrates unique commitment to tobacco cessation

Article 14 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) includes treatment as an essential component of a comprehensive strategy to end tobacco dependence. Today, October 1st, we applaud the groundbreaking decision of a major for-profit corporation to embrace this as part of their corporate mission.

In February 2014, the United States’ second-largest pharmacy chain, CVS Caremark, announced it would cease selling all tobacco products, including cigarettes, in its 7,700 stores nationwide by October 2014. This decision is projected to cost the company approximately $2 billion dollars in annual revenue. However, as more major pharmacies attempt to rebrand as healthcare providers, CVS is the first to recognize that profiting from the sale of the number one cause of preventable disease and death in the country could not mesh with company’s commitment to healthcare without appearing hypocritical and disingenuous. The removal of tobacco from CVS shelves actually occurred almost a month ahead of schedule, in early September.

The tobacco products that used to be housed in the coveted location behind checkout counters have now been replaced with information and materials about smoking cessation treatment options and programs. Tobacco dependence treatment has been placed at the forefront. In other words, CVS becomes the first major corporation to operationalize Article 14 of the WHO FCTC.

According to Steve Schroeder MD, leader of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center (SCLC) at the University of California, San Francisco:

“Pharmacies in the United States, in contrast to pharmacies in other nations, have long struggled with an internal contradiction. On the one hand, they sell medications and supplies dedicated to helping patients heal and to lead healthier lives. But at the same time they sell the world’s most deadly product: cigarettes. Many pharmacists have protested this situation, because they felt that it violated their professional ethic. And many independent pharmacies in fact stopped selling tobacco products. But the national pharmacy chains, which have captured an increasing share of the pharmacy market, protested that they could not afford to forgo the revenue from selling tobacco products.   To mark this change, CVS also announced that it was changing its name from CVS Caremark to CVS Health, a title that would not have been plausible were it still selling cigarettes. Would the loss of $2 billion in annual revenue from tobacco sales be viewed as a bad business decision? Apparently not, because during that transition period the CVS stock outperformed the two other large chains, Walgreens and Rite Aid. Will they eventually feel the pressure and follow CVS’ lead? All those interested in improving the health of the public certainly hope so.”

CVS Health’s actions should be rewarded, and other retailers in the U.S. and elsewhere should be held accountable for offering lethal products if they want to be recognized for their concern for health. CVS’ courageous move serves to highlight the hypocrisy of other pharmacies that claim to have healthcare as their primary focus and yet still sell tobacco products.