The recent announcement by the largest drugstore chain in the U.S. in overall sales that it would stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products by October of this year was monumental in the world of retail sales. No retailer voluntarily relinquishes one of its proven profit-making products, but CVS Caremark is going to do just that.
The company estimates the move will cut about $2 billion a year in sales to customers who buy cigarettes and products such as chewing gum, candy and other incidentals. That said, CVS had sales of $123 billion in 2012, so the loss from ending cigarette sales is relatively small. But, to paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about a lot of money. CVS officials, in making their decision, reasoned that improving public health was more important than the maximizing the company’s bottom line.
“We have about 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners helping patients manage chronic problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which are linked to smoking,” said CVS Chief Executive Larry Merlo. “We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting.”
We wondered whether other major South Florida retailers with a hand in the health-care pie were considering following the CVS lead and giving the boot to tobacco from store shelves. We thought this was a fair question in light of recent government statistics estimating that each day 3,200 children under 18 will try a cigarette and 700 will go on to become regular smokers, which translates to an estimated 5.6 million U.S. children alive today who will die prematurely because of diseases linked to smoking. With the exception of Walgreens, none of the most prominent retailers with an interest in public health wanted to talk about the CVS decision — not Publix, not Navarro and not Sedano.
Walgreens — the nation’s largest drugstore chain in terms of total number of stores — did reply to our query and sent us a prepared statement, one they handed out to the media earlier in the wake of the CVS announcement. They would not expand on the statement or make a company official available for questions.
“We have been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us with their ongoing health needs,” the statement read. “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.
“Over the past year, Walgreens has partnered to conduct broad-based, in-store smoking cessation campaigns to provide consumers with educational health support. For example, last month we launched a free, online quit-smoking program <www.sponsorshiptoquit.com> that incorporates social media and allows tobacco users to personalize their program with customized tools. These campaigns demonstrate the value and benefits of smoking cessation by providing consumers incentives to start a smoking cessation program and also support caregivers. With this approach we are able to address the root cause and offer customers solutions to help change behavior.”
So, for the time being, Walgreens plans to continue selling you a product that it knows will kill you. At the same time, they are going to sell you products to help you quit using the product they are selling that will kill you. And they are making voluntary programs available to help you quit the using the product they are selling you that will kill you. There is something of an incongruity there that leaves some people scratching their head and wondering if Walgreens really said that. I assure you, they did. But, at least Walgreens is on record with a statement on its position. That’s more than we could get from Publix, Navarro’s and Sedano’s. The communications directors or media representatives of these companies didn’t bother to respond to our query. One would think that any retailer with a direct link to public health would want to take a public stand on the issue of selling cigarettes, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence that smoking the little white sticks will give you cancer and emphysema, contribute to high blood pressure, escalate the body’s aging process and even kill you in the long run. But, the bottom line apparently is more important to some retailers and they would rather bury their head in the sand by not responding to the simple question: Are you giving any consideration to stopping the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products in your stores?
Ron Beasley is an editor and reporter for Miami’s Community Newspapers. He may be contacted via email at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.