The decision by CVS Caremark to stop selling tobacco products at its drugstores nationwide won't change things at many of its outlets in Massachusetts.
That's because Boston, Springfield and dozens of communities in the Bay State already prohibit the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products at pharmacies. Boston was one of the first major U.S. cities to impose such a ban in 2009. According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, more than 50 communities impose bans, covering nearly 40 percent of the state's population. There are more than 120 CVS pharmacies within those communities. Jim Wilusz is the director of public health at Tri Town Health Department, which serves communities in Berkshire County. In 2012, Tri Town worked with Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge and Pittsfield to prohibit the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies. Wilusz says the CVS announcement is a step in the right direction.
“To me, I could care less about how long it took them to make that decision,” Wilusz said. “They made it. So it doesn’t matter. It just validates all the work that we’re doing at the local level.”
The CVS ban will take effect at its more than 7,600 stores nationwide on October 1. President and CEO Larry Merlo says the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with the company’s purpose of promoting health and wellness.
“Every day we are helping millions of patients manage chronic conditions like high-blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” Merlo said in a video statement on the company’s website. “All of these conditions are made worse by smoking. Tobacco products have no place in a setting where health care is delivered.”
CVS, the nation’s second largest pharmacy chain, estimates it will lose $2 billion in revenue each year because of the move. Wilusz says he hopes the decision sends a message to other pharmacy companies.
“Hopefully it sets a trend and some of these other major chains such as Walgreens and the others will take notice and hopefully follow suit,” said Wilusz.
By email, Walgreens, the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, and Rite Aid, the fourth largest, say the companies continue to evaluate the products they sell, including tobacco, while offering smoking cessation products and services. Wilusz says the news from CVS may result in more local bans in places such as Adams and North Adams, communities that continue to discuss the topic.
“So now you’re going to have one pharmacy that doesn’t sell tobacco, but the other ones do,” Wilusz said. “It almost makes it easier just to do an all-out ban on the pharmacies in the communities to make enforcement a lot easier. That now opens up the door a little bit more so I can go back to those communities to refocus on the pharmacy ban.”
In an email, a spokesman for Altria, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, says the company appreciated working with CVS, respects its decision and will continue to work with retail stores that sell tobacco to adult consumers in a responsible way. Wilusz says the CVS move is a victory, but work remains.
“Keeping pushing the envelope,” Wilusz urged. “Tobacco and the health hazards associated with it are not going away. Twenty years later we’re still talking about tobacco as still being the number one preventable disease in the United States, killing over 440,000 people a year.”