CVS’s Tobacco Ban Isn’t a New Idea

Boston banned tobacco sales in pharmacies in 2009.

CVS Caremark Tobacco Sales

Associated Press

If you’re shocked at the idea that CVS will no longer sell tobacco products, then you’re probably neither a smoker living in Boston nor a pharmacist.

The concept of separating pharmacies, which provide customers with health services, and tobacco products, which provide customers with lethal diseases, isn’t new. In 2009, Boston became the second major U.S. city, after San Francisco, to ban pharmacies from selling tobacco products. Since then, 50 more Massachusetts communities, including Worcester, have followed suit. If you’re a Boston smoker, you haven’t been stocking up at a CVS  for years.

And if you’re a pharmacist, the question of whether to sell cigarettes dates to way before 2009. Since 1970, The American Pharmaceutical Association has argued that displaying cigarettes in pharmacies conflicted with their larger role as health care facilities, according to the American Heart Association. Many smaller pharmacies already decline to sell the products.

CVS’s stock has taken a small hit since the announcement that they would walk away from $2 billion in annual revenue. But the decision seems to take into account the longer-term public image associated with selling tobacco alongside health services, as well as the pressure from doctors and hospitals, with whom they already do business.

Getting cigarettes out of pharmacies isn’t a cure-all for our nation’s tobacco woes. Smokers can get them elsewhere. But in a 2009 report, the American Heart Association argued that it sends an important signal anyway. Pairing cigarettes with institutions otherwise focused on health sends a message about the acceptability of those products. Research showed that making tobacco less visible and increasing the stigma around it, in part by heavily regulating it, has reduced the number of people who try and eventually get addicted to cigarettes.

Willingly giving up those sales is one thing, you might say, but government regulation forcing the move is another. If you’re a libertarian, you’re probably not going to change your thoughts on that. But in that same report, the AHA argued that it’d be much easier to get pharmacies to consider voluntary action by forcing it in some communities: 

There are ongoing campaigns in a number of states to convince pharmacies to voluntarily give up tobacco sales but it is clear from the experiences in California and Massachusetts that the national chain pharmacies are not yet ready to give up tobacco sales. One of the keys to pressuring the national chains into changing their position will be to enact enough laws to bring about such a change.

The point is that CVS already had plenty of experience removing tobacco from it stores in a major market, thanks to cities like Boston, by the time it made this policy decision. If the removal had had a disastrous effect on  revenue in those places, you probably wouldn’t see them voluntarily taking the policy national. In other words, if you’re a fan of this policy, you can partly thank Boston. If you’re not, um … San Francisco did it first!