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CVS Kicks Tobacco Sales Early

The huge drugstore chain CVS, having stunned the marketplace and the public with its February vow to stop selling tobacco products at its 7,700 stores by October, announced Wednesday that it was “smoke free” a month early.

The firm that employs 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners at its stores and clinics also announced future plans for smoking-cessation programs for customers. In addition, it unveiled a name change that more aptly reflects the company’s aim to become a bigger player in the expected explosion in demand for healthcare services due to an aging population and the onset of Obamacare.

“It’s official! All CVS/pharmacy locations are tobacco free as of September 3, 2014, beating our original target date by nearly a month,” the corporation, renamed CVS Health from CVS/Caremark Corp., declared on its website.

Given that smoking is blamed for nearly a half-million premature deaths and diseases every year, public health officials praised the company’s decision to pull tobacco products, which will amount to an estimated $2-billion loss in annual sales. But CEO Larry Merlo acknowledged the company’s conflict had it continued to sell harmful tobacco products while positioning itself as a service provider via hundreds of its walk-in medical “minute clinics.” As CVS pushes to be a bigger provider of healthcare with the onset of the Affordable Care Act, Merlo told Forbes that the company had “come to the decision that cigarettes have no place in an environment where healthcare is being delivered.”

Industry analysts expected tobacco sales losses to be about 3 percent of CVS’s annual sales, which “will cycle through the next 12 months,” Merlo told Forbes.

Among the anti-smoking advocates applauding CVS for its ability to kick tobacco sales is Carlos Tirado, who specializes in treating addiction at Promises, an Elements Behavioral Health center in Malibu.

“I am an addiction psychiatrist,” Tirado said, “and a little known fact I like to share with my clients is that an alcoholic who smokes is more likely to die from smoking-related illness than from alcohol.

“Addiction to tobacco products is hands-down the No. 1 preventable cause of death and chronic disease in the United States,” Tirado said. “CVS is clearly standing on the side of personal and public health with this decision. It’s great for their brand and hopefully will have a measurable positive impact on public health.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, famous for that city’s early smoking ban and its controversial sales limit on super-sized sugary beverages, said, “CVS’s leadership will help save lives.”

“CVS’s decision to accelerate the end of tobacco sales at its stores and offer a smoking-cessation program to its customers is an important step forward for public health and one that other pharmacies should follow,” Bloomberg said. “Tobacco use is an addictive and ultimately deadly habit … pharmacies should be in the business of healing people, not making them sick.”

CVS does not sell electronic cigarettes, which create a nicotine vapor, although concentration of the drug is less than that found in traditional cigarettes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has signaled its interest in regulating electronic cigarettes on the grounds that nicotine is derived from tobacco, which it already governs.

The company did say that during the remainder of the year, the chain’s stores will be advertising its programs to help people kick the smoking habit and will “introduce a robust smoking-cessation program and an enhanced selection of nicotine replacement products in select stores.”

A report last fall showed a spike in youth having tried vaping, named for the vapor emitted when puffing e-cigarettes. The report alarmed many anti-smoking advocates and parents, despite some smokers saying they’ve been able to quit tobacco by weaning off of nicotine with e-cigarettes. And concerns have been stoked as popular entertainers like Whoopi Goldberg gush about vaping. During a televised red carpet interview before the Emmy Awards, comedian-actress Sarah Silverman displayed what she called a marijuana vape.

The fear is that teens will experiment with the trendy gadgets and get hooked on nicotine, or use e-cigarettes to camouflage liquid marijuana. Studies show most cigarette smokers became addicted as youths.

None of CVS’s competitors such as Walgreens has been reported to be considering following the company’s lead to halt tobacco sales, despite sustained pressure to do so by public health advocates.

An unintended consequence of banishing tobacco from public places is the potential for adding to the “outlaw” appeal of smoking among rebellious youths, said Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT, and director of young adult programs at Promises in Mar Vista, Calif.

“I think CVS’s move is fantastic and I’m hoping it will start a trend,” Ogle said. “I do have a fear, though, with my young adults — I just don’t want smoking to become so taboo that it becomes glamorous again.”

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