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CVS Caremark plans to stop selling tobacco products

Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, 7:33 a.m.

Public health experts say CVS's decision on Wednesday to snuff out tobacco sales at its 7,600 stores could spur other retailers, particularly drugstore chains, to follow suit and further drive down declining smoking rates.

Smoker Diane Mandell, 58, of Wilkinsburg said it won't curb her habit.

“It's not going to bother me one bit. CVS isn't the only game in town,” Mandell said as she smoked under an awning next to the CVS store on Wood Street, one of the several CVS stores in Downtown.

Mandell said she often buys cigarettes at the Wood Street CVS because she works next door as a case manager for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. But she pointed out several other options she'll have when the drugstore stops selling tobacco on Oct. 1, including two stores within a half-block.

CVS Caremark, headed by Charleroi native Larry Merlo, says the move will cost the nation's second-largest drugstore chain about $2 billion in revenue. That's less than 2 percent of sales for a company that ranks 13th on the 2013 Fortune 500 list of biggest U.S. companies.

The drugstore giant says removing tobacco will help it grow its business of working with doctors, hospitals and other care providers to improve customers' health.

“I don't think there is a great economic return here, but you have to admire the sentiment,” said John W. Ransom, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based analyst who follows CVS for Raymond James & Associates financial services company.

Jack P. Russo, a St. Louis-based analyst who follows tobacco companies Altria Group Inc. and Philip Morris International for financial investment firm Edward Jones & Co., doesn't think the tobacco industry will lose any sleep.

“It just represents a slight change of venue for tobacco consumers. But smokers are addicted, and they will find and get their tobacco products somewhere, just not at CVS,” Russo said.

He predicts sales will shift to stores such as groceries, gas stations and discount stores.

Tina Wells, 55, said she buys cigarettes at a CVS next to her house in Wilkinsburg. Now she'll likely go to a Family Dollar or Dollar General.

“It will be an inconvenience,” Wells said.

CVS has been adding clinics to stores to deliver and monitor patient care, from helping manage chronic ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes to treating relatively minor problems such as sinus infections.

“We've come to the conclusion that cigarettes have no place in a setting where health care is being delivered,” Merlo said.

Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Center, said, “It's a bold statement, but if their mission is about health, it's one they should be making.”

Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor of the history of science who once taught at Penn State, said the decision is “a giant turning point.”

“It's the next stage in the denormalization of smoking. CVS took leadership on this, and it could break the ice for other companies to follow their lead,” Proctor said. “Walgreens and other drugstore chains have two choices at this point: They can follow along with CVS or stay as the pharmacist that sells cigarettes, the world's deadliest product.”

Dr. Hilary A. Tindle, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in smoking cessation, said the CVS move “by itself might not do much to get smokers to quit, but when it comes to changing the landscape, every step is important.”

When asked if it was hypocritical for CVS not to remove other unhealthy products from its stores, such as soda and candy bars, Tindle said: “You can have a candy bar periodically without it being harmful to your health. There is no safe level of tobacco, so it's really in a class by itself.”

Tobacco is responsible for about 480,000 deaths a year in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Michael Polzin, a spokesman for chief CVS competitor Walgreen Co., said his company has been evaluating tobacco products “for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs.” He said Walgreen will continue to do this.

Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower issued a statement saying the Central Pennsylvania-based company “continually evaluates our product offering to ensure that it meets the needs and interests of our customers,” including its tobacco products.

Most independent pharmacies do not sell tobacco, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Gas stations sell about half of all cigarettes, which had $108 billion in sales in 2012, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or




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