EDITORIAL: CVS leads way by dropping tobacco from its 7,600 stores

February 5, 2014 

While fewer Americans are smoking, too many are still dying from smoking-related diseases.

America is at a crossroads 50 years after the landmark government report that launched the anti-smoking movement.

Far fewer Americans smoke today — 18% of adults, compared with 42% in 1964. But progress has stalled for about the past decade; 44 million adults still smoke and an estimated 1.2 million youths start each year. As the Surgeon General pointed out last month, smoking is still the top cause of preventable deaths, about 480,000 a year.

Two welcome developments this week will help lower tobacco's deadly toll.

Wednesday, CVS announced that it will stop selling tobacco products by Oct. 1, the first national drugstore chain to do so. Finally recognizing the conflict, the company said that promoting cigarettes no longer fits its future as a health care company.

Walgreens, Rite-Aid and other drugstore chains ought to consider following suit. So should Walmart and other retail giants that have pharmacies in their stores.

Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled a major ad campaign aimed at young people between 12 and 17, following up on the surgeon general's call to make the next generation smoke-free.

The vivid ads try to hit home with teens by showing the costs of smoking. One theme is that cigarettes take control of their lives; some ads star a miniature, pot-bellied bully who drags teens away from school and TV and orders them to fork over their money.

The other theme focuses on appearance. In one TV spot, a girl rips off part of the skin on her cheek to pay for cigarettes; in another, a boy has to wrench out a tooth with pliers.

Starting Tuesday, the campaign will appear for a year on Facebook and Twitter (hashtag #TheRealCost), as well as the usual ads on radio and TV and in teen-oriented magazines.

Over the next five years, the campaign could total $600 million — all paid for by the tobacco industry under a 2009 law signed by President Barack Obama.

CVS — the nation's second-biggest drugstore chain with 7,600 stores, including about 850 across California — estimates it will lose $1.5 billion a year in tobacco sales, plus $500 million in other purchases by smokers. That's about 1.5% of the company's revenue.

Billing itself as the nation's largest pharmacy health care provider, CVS has made a strategic decision to focus on that growing part of its business. "Put simply," President and CEO Larry J. Merlo said in a statement, "the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."

Simple perhaps, but it's an important message being sent loud and clear.

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