Don't praise CVS just yet

CVS, the nation’s second largest pharmacy chain,recently announcedit would stop selling all cigarettes and tobacco products nationwide by October, claiming they have no place in a drugstore company that is trying to become more of a health care provider.

Despite fears that the move could cost CVS major revenue, the company claims that the move will give it a competitive edge over rival pharmacies in forging partnerships with hospitals, insurers and physician groups.

Based on recent earnings reports, the fears of CVS suffering a major financial blow seem to be overblown, which indicates that the move has proven to be sound business-wise.



But this begs the question: How much praise, if any, should we give CVS for its decision to stop selling tobacco?

At first glance, one would think a lot. The last major retailer to stop selling cigarettes was Target in 1996, but Target did so only because cigarettes weren’t profitable and became too costly to keep in stock. CVS, at least, seems to care more about the message that its decision sends to its customers.

CVS chief medical officer Troyen Brennan sees the selling of cigarettes by a pharmacy as a “paradox,” because in his view, how can a pharmacy that works with primary care clinicians to treat disease at the same time sell a product that causes and/or exacerbates them?

I agree with Brennan, and hopefully more companies will follow the pharmacy’s footsteps in opting to invest in the health of their customers rather than the health of their profits.

However, I would withhold praise for the company at this point, for two reasons.

Firstly, the move was actually a long time coming. It is not as if researchers have only just concluded that smoking cigarettes can be hazardous to one’s health.

The American Pharmacists Associationrecommended all the way back in 1971 that cigarettes not be sold at pharmacies.

I suppose that after all these years, CVS finally got the message.

The pharmacy should have banned cigarettes 40 years ago. That it took this long for CVS to finally stop selling cigarettes shows how resistant to change some companies can be when looking into the face of adversity.

Secondly, even though the decision to stop selling cigarettes is significant, the company still faces many challenges ahead, and how it reacts to those challenges will test the authenticity of the company’s self-proclaimed label as a “health care provider.”

Even now, the company continues to face pressure to go even further on its health-conscious crusade by ceasing the selling of soda and other sugary products as well, but considering it took the company nearly half a decade to cease selling cigarettes, that move could also be a very long way down the road.

Also consider the fact that although CVS will stop selling cigarettes in its stores, the company itself still owns $17 million in tobacco-related stock, which shows that the company as a whole still is not ready to completely kick the habit of using tobacco products to generate revenue.

From a PR-perspective, it is completely treacherous to say one thing and do another. Deciding to stop selling cigarettes in stores is great, but seeing that the company still owns tobacco-product related stock takes some of the luster out of the move. CVS must resolve this contradiction moving forward to fully legitimize its “cease tobacco-selling” decision and its image as a true health-care provider.

Until those next steps come, I think the praise for CVS should be withheld, or at the very least kept mild in anticipation for things to come, just in case the move proves to be more smoke and mirrors rather than anything substantial.

Reach the columnist at or follow him on Twitter @jonathanmah

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