CVS Caremark plans to stop tobacco products sales

by MICHAEL FELBERBAUM & TOM MURPHY | AP Business Writers Published:

CVS Caremark is kicking the habit of selling tobacco products at its more than 7,600 drugstores nationwide as it focuses more on providing health care.

The nation's second-largest drugstore chain said Feb. 4 that it will phase out cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco by Oct. 1, a move that will cost about $2 billion in annual revenue but won't affect its 2014 earnings forecast. CVS Caremark leaders say removing tobacco will help them grow the company's business of working with doctors, hospitals and other care providers to improve customers' health.

CVS Caremark Corp. and other major drugstore chains have been adding clinics to their stores and expanding their health care focus for several years now. They've been preparing, in part, for an aging U.S. population that will need more care and for the millions of people who are expected to gain health insurance coverage under the federal health care overhaul.

Their pharmacists deliver flu shots and other immunizations, and their clinics also have been expanding the scope of care they deliver. They now help people manage chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes in addition to treating minor illnesses like sinus infections.

CEO Larry Merlo noted that chronic conditions are made worse by smoking.

"We've come to the conclusion that cigarettes have no place in a setting where health care is being delivered," he said.

The company declined to say what will take tobacco's prominent shelf place behind cash registers at the front of its stores. CVS Caremark will test some items and may expand smoking cessation products that are already sold near cigarettes. Its drugstores do not sell electronic cigarettes, devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution and create a water vapor that users inhale.

On its own, the CVS move won't hurt cigarette companies much. Drugstores overall account for only 4 percent of cigarettes sold. That pales compared with gas stations, which generate nearly half of those sales. But it's another in a long line of changes that have led cigarette sales to fall because of health concerns, higher prices and taxes, and social stigma.

CVS Caremark has been working to team up with hospital groups and doctor practices to help deliver and monitor patient care, and the presence of tobacco in its stores has made for some awkward conversations, CVS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Troyen A. Brennan said.

"One of the first questions they ask us is, 'Well, if you're going to be part of the health care system, how can you continue to sell tobacco products?'" he said. "There's really no good answer to that at all."

The drugstore chain also plans to expand its smoking cessation efforts. That includes training its pharmacists to counsel people on how to quit smoking.

Brennan said the company does not plan to phase out alcohol sales.

"At this point, we're dealing with cigarettes, which are unalterably unhealthy for people and different from any other substance that people either drink or eat," he said.

Editor's note: Murphy reported from Indianapolis and Felberbaum reported from Richmond, Va.

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