Will CVS Lead the ‘Pack’ in Tobacco Product Removal?

By Lisa A. Weder

One of the largest U.S. pharmacy chains has made a bold move. Over 7,600 CVS pharmacy (CVS) stores have removed all tobacco products from their shelves. The move will result in an estimated revenue loss of $2 billion from tobacco consumers, which includes actual tobacco sales and incidentals purchased while in the store. Not only that, the pharmaceutical retailer has officially changed its corporate name to CVS Health to reflect its commitment to healthy lifestyles. The pharmacies will continue to be known as CVS pharmacy.

CVS’ tobacco removal deadline had been October 1, 2014, but the company exceeded it, ending tobacco sales on September 3, 2014, the same day it announced its new name change.

Why now? In recent years, CVS stores around the country have been found noncompliant with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act), as amended by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Tobacco Control Act) and the Regulations Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Cigarettes and Smokeless Tobacco to Protect Children and Adolescents (21 C.F.R. Part 1140). The Tobacco Control Act “[r]ecognizes that virtually all new users of tobacco products are under 18–the minimum legal age to purchase these products,” according to an FDA fact sheet. The law gives the FDA restrictive authority over the manufacture, distribution, and advertising of tobacco products in an attempt to curtail false and misleading advertising and labeling often aimed at teens.

However, CVS President and CEO, Larry Merlo, attests to the company’s change in heart as one that is consistent with the company’s focus on health. In addition to removing tobacco products, CVS Health has launched a widespread smoking cessation campaign to help millions of Americans to quit smoking that falls in line with the FDA’s “The Real Cost” campaign.

“The Real Cost” campaign. Aside from regulatory authority, the FDA has expanded its smoking cessation efforts by launching The Real Cost, a national marketing campaign targeted at kids between the ages of 12 and 17 on February 11, 2014. The year-long campaign will air across multiple media platforms including TV, radio, print, and online in over 200 markets. In an FDA video announcing the campaign’s launch, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., said, “This campaign is about trying to reach those kids who are on the cusp of smoking, those that have already been experimenting a little bit with cigarettes, or maybe who are just one party away from starting to smoke. We want to reach them, we want them to understand the real costs of picking up that cigarette and smoking it, and we hope that we can make a difference–we hope that ultimately we will save lives.” The campaign hits youths where it counts—their appearance and the consequence that smoking has on it, such as premature wrinkling and tooth loss.

Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society, noted that CVS’ extraction from the norm ” … is an important, bold public health decision by a major retail pharmacy to act on the long understood reality that blending providing health care and providing cigarettes just doesn’t match.”

Can CVS afford to lose 2 billion? Apparently, it can. The company took in nearly $94 billion in revenues in the first three quarters of 2013, which was an increase compared to the same time frame in 2012. Pharmacy services and prescription drug sales contributed to the revenue hike. Other pharmacies, such as Walgreens, are keeping a close watch on the situation, and only time will tell whether CVS will continue to lead the pack or sink back to business as usual.