CVS to stop selling tobacco products Oct. 1


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Come next October, it will be a little more inconvenient for Randy Smithburger to buy cigarettes.

Standing outside a Walgreens Wednesday, Mr. Smithburger, 23, of Homewood, looked dismayed to learn that the place where he usually feeds his Marlboro habit -- his local CVS drugstore -- won't be selling them anymore.

"I'm only here at Walgreens today because I need to catch a bus," he said, then shrugged. "I'll just get them at the gas station instead."

CVS Caremark Corp.'s announcement Wednesday that it will stop carrying tobacco products received plenty of plaudits, from President Barack Obama -- a former smoker -- to numerous public health advocates and the American Cancer Society, which has been urging large pharmacy chains for years to stop selling cigarettes.

"This is the right decision at the right time as we evolve from a drugstore into a health care company," said Larry Merlo, CVS's chief executive, at a news conference where he and other officials expressed hope that other big drug chains -- Rite Aid, Walgreens and Walmart -- would follow suit, although it wasn't immediately clear that they would.

CVS is the largest pharmacy chain in the country based on sales, while Walgreens is the largest in the number of stores.

"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 Michael Polzin, a spokesman for Walgreens, noting "we will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want," along with providing smoking cessation products.


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Chain drugstores represent only about 4 percent of the market for cigarette sales -- gas stations are the largest, at 48 percent, followed by convenience stores at 21 percent. So will CVS's decision make that much difference to the 43.8 million people who still smoke in this country?

That number declined dramatically over the past 50 years but has flattened out somewhat in the last decade. In 2011, according to the American Cancer Society, nearly 1 in 3 male high school students -- 28 percent -- and nearly 1 in 5 female high school students -- 19 percent -- were found to be users of some type of tobacco.

"I like to smoke," Mr. Smithburger said, noting that he grew up in a family of smokers. "When you're in a bad mood, it takes the edge off."

"I don't buy cigarettes at drugstores anyway, they're too expensive," added Jen Courson, 35, of Penn Hills, who noted she patronizes Puffs Discount Tobacco. "I don't think this will make much of a difference to people who smoke. They can just go to the GetGo down the street."

Indeed, that particular GetGo in Wilkinsburg markets Camel cigarettes for $5.99 compared with around $7.50 at CVS.

Publicly, at least, CVS said it was a decision that comports with its mission "to help people on their path to better health," said Mr. Merlo, the Rhode Island-based company's CEO. As prescription drug sales have declined, CVS has installed nearly 800 "Minute" in-store clinics and nurse practitioners that they hope consumers will choose over waiting in a doctor's office.

"We've got 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners who are helping millions of patients each and every day," he said. "They manage conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes -- all conditions that are worsened by smoking. We've come to the decision that cigarettes have no place in an environment where health care is being delivered."

But this may be more a case of a company trying to set itself apart in a market where it's hard to tell the difference between CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid, said Tom Dougherty, a brand strategist and president and CEO of StealingShare.com.

CVS might lose $2 billion by dropping tobacco products, but that could very well be made up by customers who admire its decision not to sell tobacco, Mr. Donahue said, citing research his company conducted years ago that found consumers would be willing to switch their loyalties to a drug chain that didn't sell cigarettes.

"As human beings, we all seek meaning in our lives, and if we don't have it, we make it up," Mr. Donahue said, noting that with chain drugstores on every street corner, sometimes convenience is a matter of a few hundred yards.

"So if you can find a pharmacy that speaks to your higher sense of self, are you willing to be put out by half a mile?"

Cynthia Louise Riley, of Rolla, Mo., apparently thinks so. She wrote on the Post-Gazette's Facebook page that she would start "spending my money at CVS ... people who are angry over this can shop elsewhere. I'm happy to pay more to shop at a place that acts as an advocate for the things I find important."

Hilary Tindle, the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC physician who directs the Tobacco Treatment Service at UPMC Montefiore and UPMC Presbyterian, said the CVS decision "is a great step" in the campaign "to reduce tobacco use to zero."

"The fewer places where you can purchase and use tobacco, the better," she said.

"I'm happy CVS had the courage to take this step, and I hope other businesses will follow suit," Dr. Tindle said.


Correction, posted Feb. 6, 2014: Tom Dougherty's last name has been corrected.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com. David Templeton contributed.

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