In February of this year, the popular drugstore chain, CVS, announced that it would stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products by this coming October. This is part of a larger effort to become more of a healthcare provider, as opposed to a retail store. The Chief Executive of CVS, Larry J. Merlo, pointed out the irony in a retail chain that provides medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease, and the products that have been proven to cause these conditions. CVS is thus trying to set itself apart from other drugstore chains as primarily a healthcare providing resource. Interestingly, this decision would only cause CVS to lose $2 billion in revenue while the chain earned $123 billion in 2012, according to the most recent reports.
What are the effects of banning the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products? It makes these products less available to consumers and could make them less likely to pick up smoking or discourage them from continuing to smoke. If it is harder to purchase cigarettes, it is harder to smoke and the hope is that fewer and fewer people will smoke. Granted, the majority of cigarette sales (75%) come from convenience stores, as opposed to drugstores such as CVS, but this is still a small and important step to phase out our smoking culture.
Consider the effects that the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. This banned the advertisement of cigarettes on television and on the radio and required cigarette companies to print a warning label on all cigarette and tobacco products that would remind consumers that smoking, according to the Surgeon General, is dangerous to their health. In 1965, 42% of Americans smoked and more children could recognize the Camel mascot, Joe Camel, than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flinstone. Today, only 18% of Americans smoke, and this number is even lower in places such as New York City, where taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products are highest. Interestingly, the emergence of the Affordable Care Act and expansion of access to healthcare coverage has turned these drugstore chains into significant players in our nation’s healthcare system. More people are using drugstores like CVS. This ban by CVS comes at a crucial time, therefore, because the rate of decline of smokers has actually stagnated and 480,000 people still die each year from smoking-related diseases. For example, from 1999-2003, the number of high school girls who smoked declined by 37%, but between 2003-2007, this number only declined by 2.3%. Clearly, a shake-up in the way we treat smoking as a part of our culture needed to come. Then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius estimated that each day, 3,200 children under the age of 18 would try a cigarette and 700 would become regular smokers. She concluded that 5.6 million of today’s American children will die of smoking-related diseases. The FDA launched a national education program that week aimed at preventing smoking among children, and CVS hopes to make up from this small loss of revenue by starting a smoking cessation campaign to help consumers stop smoking.
We have already decreased the amount of smokers in the United States to a small fraction but if we are going to prevent even more people from dying of smoking-related diseases, big changes are necessary.