CVS Caremark’s decision to pull cigarettes and other tobacco products from its stores could ripple beyond the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain.
The move, which drew praise from President Barack Obama, doctors and anti-smoking groups when it was announced on Wednesday, puts pressure on other retailers to stop selling tobacco as well. But first they have to overcome their addiction to a product that attracts customers.
“They don’t make much money on tobacco, but it does draw people into the store,” said Craig R. Johnson, president of the retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners.
CVS Caremark Corp. said it will phase out tobacco by Oct. 1 in its 7,600 stores nationwide as it shifts toward being more of a health care provider. CVS and other drugstore chains have been adding in-store clinics and expanding their health care offerings. They’ve also been expanding the focus of some clinics to include helping people manage chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Local shoppers comment
CVS managers in Killeen and Copperas Cove declined to comment on the new policy; however, CVS shoppers in Killeen did talk about it.
“It doesn’t bother me. When you think of drug stores, you think of health. It’d be more convenient to get it all in one place, but it’s just like places going smoke free,” said Victoria Rios, a smoker and Killeen resident. “Just as long as they don’t make me stop smoking altogether, I’ll abide.”
Killeen resident Joyce Robertson, who doesn’t smoke, was pleased to hear the news.
“For me, it’s a good thing because I don’t like walking outside even when people are smoking. You know, when people are smoking on their breaks. ... Maybe they should promote the electronic cigarette though, I heard that’s better for you.”
CVS CEO Larry Merlo said the company concluded it could no longer sell cigarettes in a setting where health care also is being delivered. In fact, as CVS has been working to team up with hospital groups and doctor practices to help deliver and monitor patient care, CVS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Troyen A. Brennan said the presence of tobacco in its stores has made for some awkward conversations.
“One of the first questions they ask us is, ‘Well, if you’re going to be part of the health care system, how can you continue to sell tobacco products?’” he said. “There’s really no good answer to that at all.”
CVS, based in Woonsocket, R.I., follows a precedent set by other drugstores. Most independent pharmacies abstain from tobacco sales, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. Pharmacies in Europe also don’t sell cigarettes, and neither does major U.S. retailer Target Corp., which operates some pharmacies in its stores.
But the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which also operates pharmacies, does sell tobacco. So do CVS competitors Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp.
Both Walgreen and Rite Aid representatives said Wednesday that they are always evaluating what they offer customers and whether that meets their needs.
The question of whether to sell tobacco is complex for retailers because it’s a revenue driver. Dollar stores such as Family Dollar have started selling it over the last couple years, and they note that smokers make more frequent stops at retailers in order to buy tobacco.
That’s an important factor because these customers also may pick up other items when they visit.
Herald staff writer Courtney Griffin contributed to this report.