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CVS decides to butt out

From an editorial Thursday in the Baltimore Sun:

During the last decade, local, state and federal governments have sought to make smoking inconvenient by restricting where and when people can light up. They have made it more expensive by increasing taxes – to the point that a pack of cigarettes costs at least $10.50 in New York City. They have tried to make it scary by requiring ever larger and blunter warnings about the health risks of smoking on cigarette packaging. And they have worked to make it un-cool, most recently with a new advertising and social media campaign this week aimed at teens.

But even as the efforts to convince people not to smoke have gotten more aggressive, the smoking rate has remained about the same.

That’s why today’s announcement that CVS/Caremark, one of the nation’s largest drugstore chains, has decided to stop selling tobacco products by this October is so encouraging. It’s not that taking tobacco out of CVS will make it so much more difficult for smokers to buy cigarettes. It’s that a decision by a major, publicly traded corporation to get out of the tobacco business signals a future in which smoking is increasingly marginalized.

CVS’ decision was based on strategic considerations, not altruistic ones. It estimates it will lose about $2 billion in sales out of $123 billion total as a result of dropping tobacco, but it is essentially dropping what is likely to be a stagnant or (ideally) declining revenue stream in favor of one that offers great opportunity for growth. The chain is seeking to position its stores as health centers, and indeed, it is the leader in a new niche in the health care market of limited service clinics located inside retail outlets. If it’s not an outright conflict of interest, it’s at least a conflict of perception for consumers to see products that will kill you sold in a store marketed as a place to keep you well.

Nearly one out of every five deaths in the United States is caused by smoking, and treating smoking-related illnesses costs $96 billion a year, according to the CDC. By itself, CVS’ decision isn’t going to change that. But it is an important step in the effort to send a unified message that smoking is not and should not be accepted as the norm.

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