WASHINGTON – CVS Caremark, the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain, plans to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its more than 7,600 retail stores by Oct. 1, a landmark decision that would make it the first national pharmacy company to cease tobacco sales.
The move, which the company announced Wednesday, puts pressure on other retailers and comes after years of prodding from public health advocates and medical providers, who have urged retailers to make tobacco products and advertising less available, particularly to children and teenagers.
It also marks a major turn for one of the country’s biggest health care companies, which said it is giving up about $2 billion in annual sales, or about 1.6 percent of the company’s 2012 revenues.
CVS has been steadily increasing its business providing medical care through its pharmacists and a growing number of urgent care clinics at its retail locations.
“As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care,” Larry J. Merlo, the president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”
The initiative from CVS puts the bullseye on the back of Walgreen Inc., the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, which has faced withering attacks from health and advocacy groups for years surrounding its policy of selling tobacco products.
Despite its more recent transformation into a more health care-focused company, Deerfield-Ill.-based Walgreen has remained steadfast in its tobacco policy, arguing last year that it must continue to sell those products to stay competitive with other drugstore chains, convenience stores and grocery stores.
Michael Polzin, a Walgreen spokesman, said Wednesday the company has been evaluating its tobacco line for “some time,” and said it “will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want, while also helping to educate them and providing smoking cessation products and alternatives that help reduce the demand for tobacco products.”
Walgreen on Wednesday also announced a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Heathcare to launch a free, Internet-based smoking cessation program called Sponsorship to Quit.
The program will provide smokers with customized tools to track their progress in quitting smoking.
While Walgreen does not break out tobacco sales, the company last year cited the introduction of cigarette sales in dollar stores as a key contributor to a decline in its store traffic for its third quarter.
CVS, based in Woonsocket, R.I., also pledged to launch what it called a “robust national smoking cessation program” this spring.
Nationwide, less than 5 percent of cigarette sales occurred in pharmacies in 2009, according to a study by the Center for Global Tobacco Control. But sales at pharmacies have been increasing, even as overall cigarette sales declined.
Public health advocates hailed the CVS decision, expressing optimism that it could catalyze new efforts to curb tobacco use.
“This is a bold step,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “CVS is clearly establishing a leadership position in making the country healthier and in building a culture of health.”
CVS has about 30 locations in Western New York.
An employee at one Buffalo location said many, many customers buy cigarettes at her store and that she is already hearing a backlash from some patrons.
“They are not happy,” she said.
In February 2008, Wegmans announced it would stop selling cigarettes at all its locations, citing “the role smoking plays in people’s health.”
Half a century after the ground-breaking U.S. Surgeon General’s report warning of the dangers of smoking, the nation has dramatically cut smoking rates for adults from 42 percent in 1965 to just 19 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But public health advocates have grown concerned that progress has stalled in recent years.
No major retailer has taken steps to limit tobacco sales since Target announced in 1996 that it would stop selling tobacco products.
And though pressure on pharmacies has been growing, Walgreen went to court to try to stop San Francisco from imposing a ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies. The challenge was dismissed by a federal court. Boston has enacted a similar ban.
Public health advocates hope that reducing the number of stores where tobacco products can be sold and advertised will help push smoking rates down even further.
“We need another boost,” said Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society.
While acknowledging that smokers will be able to go somewhere else to buy cigarettes, Wender and other advocates said making purchases a little more difficult can help tobacco users resist the urge to buy.
CVS executives said they hoped the company’s decision would also contribute to the ongoing campaign to make tobacco use socially unacceptable.
In June, Starbucks began prohibiting smokers from lighting up within a 25-foot radius of its stores, attributing the rule to “a sense of responsibility to provide customers with a safe and healthy environment.” The Seattle coffee giant had previously banned smoking inside its cafes.
– The Chicago Tribune and News Business Reporter Samantha Maziarz Christmann contributed to this report.