CVS Caremark’s decision to pull cigarettes and other tobacco products from its stores could ripple beyond the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain.
The move, which drew praise from President Barack Obama, doctors and anti-smoking groups when it was announced Wednesday, puts pressure on other retailers to stop selling tobacco as well. But first they have to overcome their addiction to a product that attracts customers.
“They don’t make much money on tobacco, but it does draw people into the store,” said Craig R. Johnson, president of the retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners.
CVS Caremark Corp. said it will phase out tobacco by Oct. 1 in its 7,600 stores nationwide as it shifts toward being more of a health care provider. CVS and other drugstore chains have been adding in-store clinics and expanding their health care offerings. They’ve also been expanding the focus of some clinics to include helping people manage chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
CVS CEO Larry Merlo said the company concluded it could no longer sell cigarettes in a setting where health care also is being delivered. As CVS has been working to team up with hospital groups and doctor practices to help deliver and monitor patient care, CVS chief medical officer Dr. Troyen A. Brennan said the presence of tobacco in its stores has made for some awkward conversations.
“One of the first questions they ask us is, ‘Well, if you’re going to be part of the health care system, how can you continue to sell tobacco products?’” he said. “There’s really no good answer to that at all.”
CVS, based in Woonsocket, R.I., follows a precedent set by other drugstores. Most independent pharmacies abstain from tobacco sales, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. Pharmacies in Europe also don’t sell cigarettes, and neither does major U.S. retailer Target Corp., which operates some pharmacies in its stores.
But the world’s largest retailer, Walmart Stores Inc., which also operates pharmacies, does sell tobacco. So do CVS competitors Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called on others to follow the CVS example. “We need an all-hands-on-deck effort to take tobacco products out of the hands of America’s younger generation, and to help those who are addicted to quit,” she said in a statement.
Both Walgreen and Rite Aid representatives said Wednesday that they are always evaluating what they offer customers and whether that meets their needs.
Reaction from area stores was mixed.
Kristin Kellum, spokeswoman for Rite Aid, offered a statement Wednesday that said her company does sell “a wide range of products, including tobacco products, which are available for purchase in accordance with federal, state and local laws. Additionally, Rite Aid also sells a variety of smoking cessation products and provides additional resources, including our pharmacists, who are available to counsel people trying to stop smoking. We continually evaluate our product offering to ensure that it meets the needs and interests of our customers.”
At one Tacoma pharmacy, Cost Less on Pacific Avenue, cigarette sales have not been an issue.
“We did sell them, years and years ago,” said owner Gary Bisceglia on Wednesday.
But he sells them no longer.
“It’s a health issue,” he said. “We’re trying to keep people healthy. I don’t care about the revenue. It wasn’t profitable anyway.”
Calls to Bartell Drugs, where cigarettes are sold, were not returned by late Wednesday afternoon.Staff writer C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.