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CVS Caremark To Clear Shelves Of Tobacco Products


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rene Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's talk about the change coming to the giant pharmacy chain CVS. If you walk into one of those drugstores, you're liable to see cigarettes for sale behind the counter, along with other tobacco products. But according to the company, that's not going to last much longer. The company says it's going to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products. The chain says it's making this move because selling cigarettes is at odds with its caretaking mission. NPR's Yuki Noguchi is covering this story. She's in our studios. Yuki, good morning.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how does this called up?

NOGUCHI: Well, it's something that the AMA, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and others have been lobbying pharmacies to do for a long time. And you know, places like San Francisco and Boston, cities are starting to ban the sale of tobacco in pharmacies. So the company apparently wanted to get out in front of this.

INSKEEP: OK. Why would they make this decision now?

NOGUCHI: Well, the drugstore industry is changing. Drugstores aren't just filling prescriptions anymore. A lot of drugstores are marketing themselves as wellness centers. And many, including CVS, are running health care centers and partnering with hospitals. So the company has come to the conclusion that selling cigarettes conflicts with these kinds of changes.

INSKEEP: And I suppose if there are individual cities that were banning the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies - that's what you're telling us, right? This is something that they might feel they were going to have to do anyway in many places.

NOGUCHI: It's possible. Yeah. I mean there's been a couple of moves to sort of reduce the sale of cigarettes. And as I say, there's been pressure from these interest groups to ban the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies.

INSKEEP: Is CVS going to lose money as a result of this?

NOGUCHI: Yes, it will. CVS says cigarette sales generate about $2 billion in annual revenue. And so the announcement this morning also warns investors that it will affect the company's earnings per share. The company thinks it can offset some of those losses by offering some other health care services, but they weren't very specific with me what kind of services those would be.

INSKEEP: So now the point here is to attempt to improve people's health, I suppose, by not selling cigarettes or at least get CVS out of the business of harming people's health by selling cigarettes. But are people actually liable to smoke less just because this one large pharmacy chain is not selling their products?

NOGUCHI: Well, CVS acknowledges that its actions alone probably won't do that. I spoke with CVS's chief medical officer, Troyen Brennan, this morning, and he acknowledges CVS may not make a dent in sales. But he also said this.

TROYEN BRENNAN: If it does gain some momentum and other retailers make the same decision that we made, especially if you think about all the retailers that have pharmacies, including Big Box and groceries, that probably will decrease availability or access overall.

NOGUCHI: Now, smoking, of course, has been on the decline since the 1960s, but the reduction - the rate of reduction stalled. Anti-smoking advocates are gaining some ground. New York City banned smoking outdoors in public places.


NOGUCHI: And the new health care law allows insurers to charge smokers more for coverage. And for its part, CVS says, in addition to halting sales, it will launch a smoking cessation program online and in its stores.

INSKEEP: Now, you spoke with that medical officer who said, well, maybe if we do this other people will join in. Are other pharmacy chains likely to join in on this effective ban in their stores, anyway, of cigarettes?

NOGUCHI: The American Cancer Society certainly hopes so. The executive I spoke with there is Richard Wender. He's chief cancer control officer and here's what he had to say.

RICHARD WENDER: I'm personally very hopefully that other pharmacies would make the same decision.

NOGUCHI: They've had discussions with other chains, he says. And CVS is the second largest drugstore chain in the country, and so it is significant that it's the first to take the step.

INSKEEP: So when will we actually see this change inside the CVS stores?

NOGUCHI: By October of this year, CVS says, it will take effect in all of their 7,600 stores. And this applies not just to cigarettes and tobacco but to electronic cigarettes as well, which are increasingly popular.

INSKEEP: Yuki, thanks very much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.