Smokeless CVS: Altruism meets capitalism

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    (Photo via ShutterStock)

    Can we at least all agree that CVS’ decision to stop selling tobacco is awesome?

    Health advocates can love the fact that a major retail chain is purging from its shelves the nation’s leading preventable cause of premature death. Liberals can love the fact that 50 years of government anti-smoking activism – by the Surgeon General, the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration – is being validated in the private sector. Conservatives can love the free-enterprise melding of altruism and capitalism.

    Obviously, CVS isn’t barring tobacco out of the goodness of its corporate heart. But it’s a fine day indeed when a purveyor of a product that annually kills nearly half a million Americans comes to realize that the promotion of good health is actually good for business.

    Cigarettes are a shrinking market; pharmaceutical-based health care is a growing market. CVS has lately been positioning itself as a full-service provider (flu shots, diagnoses of common ailments), partnering with hospitals and insurers. In the words of CEO Larry Merlo, “We’ve come to the conclusion that cigarettes have no place in a setting where health care is being delivered….There’s a growing emphasis on healthy outcomes, managing chronic disease.”

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    He got that right. It makes no sense to practice wellness in the back of a store, while selling a killer product in the front of the store. It’s counterintuitive to tout preventive health services, while aiding and abetting bad health practices. Each year, America spends $130 billion on the treatment of smoking-related disease, and takes a $60-billion hit in lost worker productivity,  so we should all be happy that a retail corporation – 13th on the list of Fortune 500 – has seen fit to embrace enlightened self-interest.

    Really, who could possibly sneer at the CVS decision? Funny you should ask.

    Here are a few random troll samplings from social media: “Very cute, CVS. Nice spin claiming to be looking out for people’s ‘better health.’ But if that was the case, chips, candy, and soda would be outlawed too correct? Again, very cute, CVS. ” And: “Okay, let’s not be ignorant about this – there is only one reason a business stops carrying a product such as (tobacco) – because it stops making them money! Nothing to do with concern for the public – it’s all about the bottom line people!”

    It’s a social media axiom that everything sucks, so naturally CVS is being painted as profit-hungry…as if there’s something scandalous about corporate social responsibility, about combining healthy customers with a healthy bottom line.

    The other complaint is inspired by the ButWhatAbout school of argument. Here’s Katrina Trinko, who works at the conservative Heritage Foundation: “Can we please stop making smoking the No. 1 vice to be avoided in America?…What about moral health? CVS currently sells lottery tickets…Or what about celebrity magazines?” Um, smoking is the No. 1 vice not just because of the death stats but because it’s also the only legal consumer product that kills you if used as directed.

    The federal government would never order pharmacy stores to stop selling cigarettes (although the cities of San Francisco and Boston have done so); far better for corporations to decide for themselves to further chip away at the tobacco industry’s declining domestic revenue. Indeed, CVS’ decision puts pressure on its retail chain competitors to follow suit in the future. Pharmacy stores sell only four percent of the cigarettes nationwide, but that still translates into big bucks. Which is why Philip Morris fought the San Francisco ban on pharmacy sales, arguing in vain that the city was suppressing its free-speech constitutional right to communicate with adult smokers.

    The tobacco industry recognizes the stakes. The wellness ethos is its enemy; the CVS decision could be the first salvo on an entirely new front. When it starts to lose the private sector, it’s surely in trouble. If only the Marlboro Man was still around to counter the CVS message…but Marlboro man advertising died in 1998. And at least four actual Marlboro men have died of smoking-related diseases, which says it all.


    Meanwhile, as congressional Republicans continue to resist the idea of path-to-citizenship immigration reform, here’s the quote of the day:

    “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.”

    So said Ronald Reagan in 1984. Happy 103th birthday, Mr. President!

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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