PITTSBURGH — Come Oct. 1, it will be a little more inconvenient for Randy Smithburger to buy cigarettes.
Standing outside a Walgreens on Wednesday, Mr. Smithburger, 23, of Homewood, Pa., looked dismayed to learn that the place where he usually feeds his Marlboro habit — his local CVS drugstore — won’t be selling them anymore.
“I’m only here at Walgreens today because I need to catch a bus,” he said, then shrugged. “I’ll just get them at the gas station instead.”
CVS Caremark’s announcement Wednesday of its decision to stop carrying tobacco products received plenty of plaudits, from President Obama — a former smoker — to numerous public health advocates and the American Cancer Society, which has been urging large pharmacy chains for years to stop selling cigarettes.
“This is the right decision at the right time as we evolve from a drugstore into a health-care company,” said Larry Merlo, CVS’ chief executive, at a news conference where he and other officials expressed hope that other big drug chains — Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Walmart — would follow suit, although it wasn’t immediately clear that they would. CVS is the largest pharmacy chain in the country based on sales, while Walgreens is the largest in the number of stores.
“We have been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs,” said Michael Polzin, a spokesman for Walgreens, noting “we will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want,” along with providing smoking cessation products.
Chain drug stores represent only about 4 percent of the market for cigarette sales — gas stations are the largest, at 48 percent, followed by convenience stores at 21 percent. So will CVS’ decision make that much difference to the 43.8 million people who still smoke in this country?
That number declined dramatically over the last 50 years but has flattened out somewhat in the last decade. In 2011, according to the American Cancer Society, nearly 1 in 3 high school boys — 28 percent — and nearly 1 in 5 high school girls — 19 percent — were found to be current users of some type of tobacco.
“I like to smoke,” Mr. Smithburger said, noting that he grew up in a family of smokers. “When you’re in a bad mood, it takes the edge off.”
“I don’t buy cigarettes at drug stores anyway. They’re too expensive,” added Jen Courson, 35, of Penn Hills, Pa., who noted that she patronizes Puff Discount Tobacco, a chain with a store near her. Ms. Courson says she has successfully quit smoking at various times, “but I just started again, I don’t know why. I don’t think this will make much of a difference to people who smoke. They can just go to the Get-Go down the street.”
Publicly, at least, CVS said it was a decision that comports with its mission “to help people on their path to better health,” said Mr. Merlo, the Rhode Island-based company’s CEO. As prescription drug sales have declined, CVS has installed nearly 800 “Minute” in-store clinics and nurse-practitioners that they hope consumers will choose over waiting in a doctor’s office.
“We’ve got 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners who are helping millions of patients each and every day,” he said. “They manage conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes — all conditions that are worsened by smoking. We’ve come to the decision that cigarettes have no place in an environment where health care is being delivered.”
But this may be more a case of a company trying to set itself apart in a market where it’s hard to tell the difference among CVS, Walgreens, or Rite Aid, said Tom Donahue, a brand strategist and president and CEO of StealingShare.com.
CVS might lose $2 billion by dropping tobacco products, but that could very well be made up by customers who admire their decision not to sell tobacco, Mr. Donahue said, citing research his company conducted years ago that found consumers would be willing to switch their loyalties to a drug chain that didn’t sell cigarettes.
“As human beings, we all seek meaning in our lives, and if we don’t have it, we make it up,” Mr. Donahue said, noting that with chain drugstores on every street corner, sometimes convenience is a matter of a few hundred yards.
“So if you can find a pharmacy that speaks to your higher sense of self, are you willing to be put out by half a mile?”
Hilary Tindle, a University of Pittsburgh physician who directs the Tobacco Treatment Service at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Montefiore and UPMC Presbyterian, said the CVS decision “is a great step” in the campaign “to reduce tobacco use to zero.”
“The fewer places where you can purchase and use tobacco, the better,” she said, adding that such small steps over the last 50 years took society from smoking being the norm to fewer than one in five adults currently using cigarettes.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Mackenzie Carpenter at: email@example.com or 412-263-1949.