CVS Caremark Drops Tobacco, Wants To Be Your Health Provider

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Smokers are shrugging off the announcement that CVS will stop selling tobacco products. The company announced the move on Wednesday as part of a strategy to promote healthy choices. But more than half of cigarettes are sold at gas stations, so the company's decision is unlikely to have much of an impact on access to tobacco.

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CVS has announced that it is going cold turkey. The Rhode Island-based company CVS Caremark is taking cigarettes and other addictive tobacco products off its shelves in its stores. President Obama praised yesterday's announcement. So did many doctors. And anti-smoking groups say they hope the move puts pressure on other retailers to stop selling tobacco, as well. CVS will phase out all tobacco products in its stores by October, and we're talking about 7,600 stores across the country. As Catherine Welch from Rhode Island public radio reports, this is part of a larger move by CVS to try and become a health care provider.

CATHERINE WELCH, BYLINE: I don't know about you, but when I go to CVS, I'm buying nail polish, a birthday card or picking up a prescription. It's not a place I'd think of to get a physical or lab work done, but I could. And CVS is ditching cigarettes and other tobacco products so you and I will think of them as more of a health care provider, says CEO Larry Merlo.

LARRY MERLO: It positions CVS Caremark for continued growth in our evolving healthcare marketplace.

WELCH: Company officials say, hey, they're more than just a place to go for potato chips or that prescription. They have what they call Miniature Clinics, staffed with nurses and physician's assistants, ready to give a physical or tend to a minor emergency. CVS is becoming a doctor's office.

FRANK MORGAN: It's actually been happening for many, many years. You just haven't noticed it.

WELCH: But Frank Morgan has. He's an analyst for RBC Capital, and keeps a sharp eye on CVS. He says the pharmacy has been inching into customers' health care, a sector where there's room for growth, especially as more people get health insurance and will need someplace to go for basic primary care. Morgan thinks it's smart CVS is boosting its health care credentials by ditching tobacco.

MORGAN: Well, you know, I think it's probably the right thing to do. If your business is evolving to be a health care business, then, you know, you don't see many hospitals selling cigarettes in their locations.

WELCH: The Rhode Island-based CVS is the only national pharmacy chain to go tobacco-free. Karina Holyoak Wood, director of Tobacco Free Rhode Island, couldn't be more thrilled to have a homegrown company leading the way.

KARINA HOLYOAK WOOD: For people who are trying to quit smoking, every time you see tobacco products when you're shopping, it's very difficult to resist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

WELCH: Lisa Lillie is smoking a cigarette as she waits for a bus across the street from a CVS in downtown Providence.

LISA LILLIE: I think it's a good idea. If it's there in front of your face, you're going to do it.

WELCH: But Everett Foster and a handful of smokers at this bus station say removing tobacco from CVS won't curb their smoking.

EVERETT FOSTER: No, it's not going to help at all. They actually stopped selling cigarettes in pharmacies in Massachusetts, where I'm from, and it's just a burden.

WELCH: So, he'll go buy them elsewhere, maybe at a gas station, where more than half of cigarettes are sold, anyway. CVS says all of its stores will be tobacco-free starting in October, costing the company $2 billion, which sounds like a lot, but is only a small fraction of its sales. CVS says it can afford the loss, as it moves toward a healthy lifestyle outside the pharmacy section. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Providence, Rhode Island.

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