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NC tobacco industry shrugs at CVS decision to drop tobacco products

RALEIGH Wednesday’s announcement by the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain that it would stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products was met with a wary shrug by North Carolina’s tobacco industry.

CVS Caremark – which owns 7,600 stores nationwide, including more than 210 in North Carolina – said Wednesday that it would cease selling tobacco products by Oct. 1.

The decision, which made national headlines and drew lavish praise from President Barack Obama and from smoking foes, was part of a shift in emphasis away from retail sales and toward health care services, CVS officials said.

And it was one more blow for the state’s once-dominant crop, though one that could be little more than symbolic.

“The loss of access to tobacco products in one place doesn’t mean that it will change in others,” said Tommy Bunn of the Raleigh-based U.S. Tobacco Cooperative, a farmer-owned company that buys and processes tobacco for resale to manufacturers worldwide and makes some tobacco products itself. “In most places you have several sources to choose from, and people will just shop somewhere else.”

Partly because of a sharp national decline in smoking, tobacco hasn’t ruled the state’s economy in decades. As a crop, it now ranks behind chicks, hogs and turkeys in sales.

Even so, it’s still a force. North Carolina is by far the nation’s largest tobacco producer and a major cigarette manufacturing center.

About 65 percent of U.S.-grown tobacco sprang from the soil here before the amount of farmers could grow was deregulated in 2004, said William Collins, a retired N.C. State University extension specialist. Now in a typical year it’s more than 80 percent.

“Apparently we turned out to be more efficient than the other states at producing it,” Collins said.

As of 2011, more than 250,000 jobs in North Carolina were still tied to tobacco, and it had an estimated impact on the economy of more than $7 billion, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Losing thousands of retail outlets in one swoop obviously won’t help cigarette sales, but it may be a while before it’s clear that CVS’ move has had a significant effect, said Bunn, whose company is owned by nearly 1,000 farmers, mainly in North Carolina.

“It could have an impact if this were to become a national trend,” he said. “But it’s hard to read the eventual effects of a decision like that.”

CVS will be the first major national retail chain to drop tobacco products since Target did it in 1996, according to the Los Angeles Times. But unless tobacco opponents are able to use CVS’ move as leverage to persuade other major retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens, to follow suit, the hit to the tobacco industry may be modest.

A spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem, David P. Howard, issued a short statement saying that Reynolds values the relationship it had with CVS and respects the pharmacy chain’s decision.

But he also noted that only about 3.6 percent of cigarettes sold in the U.S. in 2012 were sold at pharmacies, according to the market research company Euromonitor International. Nearly 48 percent were bought at gas stations, 21 percent in specialty tobacco stores and about 16 percent in convenience stores.

The CVS decision may be more of a milestone in the changing nature of the pharmacy business rather than in the decline of tobacco.

The change in focus has been embraced by much of the industry, with many drugstores now offering “miniclinics,” vaccinations and counseling on topics such as diabetes. In part, this has been driven by shortages in family physicians and the rising demand for health care services.

“This is a move on CVS’ part to be more in line with promoting health, and promoting health care and providing positive health outcomes for their patients,” said Macary Marciniak, an associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Marciniak is trained not only in pharmacology but also in providing services such as immunization, tobacco cessation, and diabetes education, and teaches students and pharmacists how to offer those in their pharmacies.

“Pharmacists who are embedded in the community are sometimes that first line of contact, and that first line of discussion with patients,” she said. “This is part of the growing trend and certainly what we’re teaching students today in school includes how to be that frontline health care provider and help people with their health care decisions.”

It’s hard not to view selling tobacco products as being in conflict with that new role, Marciniak said.

“You have a growing number of tobacco cessation products available over the counter,” she said. “So sometimes it is the pharmacist who has that first conversation with patients who are looking to quit smoking, and advising them on their options, and even following up and being a coach for them as they go through that quit attempt to help them maximize their chance of success.”

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