Drug Store Plans To Rid Its Shelves Of Tobacco Products

The pharmacy giant CVS plans to eliminate cigarettes and other tobacco products from its stores by October. The company says it made the decision because the drug store business is changing and that selling cigarettes is no longer consistent with its mission. Medical experts and the White House hailed the move. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The pharmacy giant CVS said this morning that it would stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products later this year. The decision means forgoing a lot of reliable revenue, but, the company says, its business and its mission are headed in another direction. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, medical experts and the White House hailed the move as a hopeful sign of things to come.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Cigarettes and tobacco generate a lot of revenue for drug stores, more than $2 billion in annual sales for CVS. But speaking in an online video, President and CEO Larry Merlo said that's no longer the direction CVS wants to go.

LARRY MERLO: And when we asked ourselves where we expect to be in the future as a healthcare company, it became clear that removing tobacco products from our stores is the right thing to do.

TROYEN BRENNAN: I think we think it's a good business decision.

NOGUCHI: That's Troyen Brennan, CVS's chief medical officer who spent most of his career in academia and public health. Brennan says CVS and other drug store chains are evolving, doing more than just filling prescriptions and becoming more like clinics offering nursing care. As part of that effort, he says, CVS is trying to forge more partnerships with hospitals.

BRENNAN: Whenever we go into meet with them and talk about partnerships, one of the first questions they ask is how can you continue to sell tobacco products?

NOGUCHI: CVS is the first national chain to eliminate tobacco sales. But in a statement, industry leader Walgreen said it, too, has been evaluating its options, weighing what customers want against their ongoing health needs. Cities, meanwhile, are tightening their squeeze on tobacco and smokers. New York City banned smoking in public areas, and San Francisco and Boston are among a growing number of cities that have banned the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies.

The push to halt the sale of medicine alongside cigarettes is nothing new. The American Medical Association and the American Lung Association, among others, has advocated for it for several years. Richard Wender is chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society. He says he believes cutting back on the number of places one can buy tobacco will discourage young people, in particular, from starting or continuing to smoke.

RICHARD WENDER: I guarantee you some people will quit because of this decision by CVS.

NOGUCHI: David Kuneman disagrees.

DAVID KUNEMAN: I've never heard of anybody saying, gee, I just couldn't find a place to buy a pack of cigarettes so I'm going to quit. Now, that has never happened.

NOGUCHI: Kuneman is Midwest regional director for Citizens Freedom Alliance, a smokers' rights group. He notes that he and most other smokers he knows buy their cigarettes at gas stations and convenience stores, not at drug stores. And, in fact, according to the market research firm, Euromonitor International, pharmacies account for less than four percent of cigarette sales. Kuneman also notes CVS sells plenty of junk food and controlled substances that can cause health problems as well.

KUNEMAN: There should be some consistency in their policy if they want to stop selling tobacco products. There's a lot of other things in their stores that they should stop selling, too.

NOGUCHI: CVS says it will stop selling tobacco products in all of its 7600 stores by October of this year. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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