For Gainesville residents, CVS will soon no longer be their 24/7 option to indulge in one destructive habit — tobacco use.
CVS announced on Feb. 5 that by October, its more than 7,000 stores would no longer sell cigarettes and other tobacco products, despite the potential loss of revenue for the company.
Some pharmacies dropped the harmful product long ago. Gainesville’s Riverside Pharmacy on Green Street stopped selling tobacco 14 years ago, owner Scottie Barton said.
“The big push at the time was no public smoking in the areas, that type of thing, and we just decided at that time it would probably be best to quit selling them,” Barton said. “For the profession as a whole within the medical field, the push is to get people to quit smoking.”
“It would be kind of talking out of both sides of your mouth if you want to sell those products and push smoking cessation stuff.”
Local CVS employees do not speak with the media, according to corporate policy, said an employee who answered the phone at the Jesse Jewell Parkway location.
A news release from CVS cited health concerns as the primary factor in the pharmacy chain’s decision.
“Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health,” said Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”
Health and well-being advocates agreed. David Smith, director of Center Point, a Gainesville youth development organization that promotes well-being and positive development for kids and families, said the visible presence and sale of tobacco products in drugstores sends a “mixed message” to the public.
“I think it’s very important, especially if their scene is part of our health care structure. Your pharmacy, your medical world is part of that,” Smith said. “Here they are selling that product that absolutely goes against people being healthy.”
Smith said the private sector move reflects anti-tobacco sentiments being more imbedded culturally, and importantly comes at a time when the state’s resources toward tobacco prevention have dwindled.
According to the state’s Department of Public Health, tobacco use kills more than 11,000 Georgians each year at a cost of nearly $5 billion in both direct and indirect costs. Tobacco use is one of the top causes of preventable early death, only recently surpassed by obesity.
Jean O’Connor, director of disease prevention for the department, said the CVS decision is an “important step to save lives.”
“Every organization that takes steps to reduce exposure to tobacco products, either by removing them from their stores like CVS has done or by adopting a policy to make their property tobacco-free, is taking important steps to save lives,” she said. “Kids are especially vulnerable to tobacco marketing and advertising, and when they see adults buy tobacco in a place that otherwise stands for health, it sends a mixed message.”
CVS runs the risk of losing business to retailers that will continue to sell tobacco, including Walgreens, Rite-Aid and Wal-Mart.
David Westfall, District 2 health director with the Georgia Division of Public Health, pointed out another perspective on how the decision could affect CVS’ bottom line.
“One can almost argue that they might have had a selfish incentive to continue selling something that would continue making people sick so that they would have to come in and get more medication — that’s a pretty cynical way to look at it though,” Westfall said.
Even with companies making more enlightened decisions on tobacco, critics of smoking face steep obstacles to curbing use, Westfall said.
“There has been an impact on the percentage of adults smoking in that it has decreased, but one of the things you’re looking at is that the tobacco companies have a very vested interest in selling the product,” Westfall said.
“They have poured lots and lots of money in marketing, and young people feel invincible — they know bad things will happen but think it won’t happen to them, and it’s a very addictive substance.”
To overcome the pressure of marketing and nicotine’s addictive staying power, employers are taking advantage of a health care reform provision that allows penalties for the habit.
“A number of health insurance policies offered by companies charge a surcharge if you smoke or use tobacco products,” Westfall said. “That’s a recognition on the part of employers that smoking increases the cost of health care so they’re trying to give people a monetary financial incentive to try to help people recognize the danger.”
Smith said it’s a testament to just how harmful tobacco is that a company is willing to take a more aware — albeit profit-harming — stance.
“I hope it keeps going that way, particularly with companies like that where they’re sending a mixed message,” Smith said. “It becomes very clear if you’re sending a message out that ‘We’re willing to take a loss here because at least we have some standards.’”
And in fact, Smith said a positive community response to CVS and other nontobacco pharmacies can drive continued changes to curb tobacco use.
“It’s all of it working together,” he said. “I think it’s when you get the medical, the corporate, the legislative — when they’re sending out the same message it only strengthens it.”
“When the voices of the community say, ‘Hey, this is a good thing’ and they’re engaged, that’s what’s best.”