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CVS Says They'll Stop Selling Tobacco: Could This Be the Start of Something?

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Photo Credit: tommaync@flickr

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a hypocrite. 

People saying one thing and doing another really irks me. I feel similarly about those who make rules and then break them. There's a lot of hypocrisy in the medical field - enough to make me a cynic. Doctors preach "no tobacco" and carry magazines in their waiting rooms that have tobacco advertisements. 3M, the biggest manufacturer of inhaler components to treat tobacco-related lung disease is also the biggest manufacturer of tobacco paper. And pharmacies whose primary function is to administer medications to treat the sick also sell the number one cause of sickness on their shelves - cigarettes.

Recently, however, the CEO of CVS, a large pharmacy chain, declared publicly that they would stop selling tobacco products. But is this an end to hypocrisy or is something else afoot?

The Announcement

Last week, Larry Merlo, President and CEO of CVS/Caremark declared on CNN that as of October 1st, CVS will not sell tobacco products. He stated that continuing to sell tobacco products is not consistent with CVS's focus on improving health. As such, cigarettes and healthcare cannot exist at the same business - a significant considering that CVS is the second largest pharmacy chain in America. It's also significant considering that over $2 billion in revenue is generated at CVS from the sale of tobacco products. Further, the absence of cigarettes may mean that smokers take their business elsewhere. Still, CVS is firm in its stand.  So, CVS is the first major pharmacy company to remove the hypocrisy of tobacco sales and health promotion. Is it as simple as this?

Ulterior Motives?

This sounds like a bold move on the surface, a sacrifice in the crusade for improving America's health in the war on tobacco, but critics feel that there is an ulterior motive.

With the sweeping changes in healthcare, the government is looking to curb behaviors through market forces. Doctors' offices have seen this over the last couple years with financial incentives or penalties for conforming with a program titled Meaningful Use. In this program, doctors were nudged to obtain electronic medical records and better communicate with patients and other healthcare entities. With dollars at stake, most doctors all doctors have complied. Speculation exists that a whiff of these types of government reform may have led to this decision by CVS. 

Another theory is that CVS is making a move to widen their scope in healthcare. Over recent years, retail pharmacies have made some significant changes in their services. Most now administer vaccines - a great things because it's increased immunization rates. In fact, in some pharmacies new full-fledged clinic have been created to treat simple medical issues like colds and bladder infections. CVS may be cleaning up its act before making a large move into this arena, catering to the "easy access" desires of Americans with simple healthcare issues.

Beyond Tobacco

Beyond speculation surrounding their motives however, critics have been quick to point out that CVS sells other unhealthy products such as candy, soda and alcohol. It also - for the time being - will continue to sell e-cigarettes. Still, this is a big move and may be the start of further considerations as the chain (and America) looks to improve health. One needs to be mindful that the decision is at its inception. Everything needs to start somewhere and to me, complacency would have been a bigger fail.  President Obama remarked that CVS's decision sends a "powerful message."  CVS's competitors, Walgreens and Rite Aid are also evaluating their continued sales of tobacco products.

My Take?

America needs to get healthier and any move to increase the health of Americans should be commended. Curbing access to tobacco products is such a move. Whether it is the government, CVS's altruism or their master business plan, the outcome is a good one.  Let's hope that this "powerful message" creates momentum toward reducing the health havoc that tobacco has wrecked on America.


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