Published on: March 5, 2014by Kate McMahon
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Now that CVS has announced that it will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products in its 7,600 stores by October 1st, all eyes are on social media and its rivals.
Within hours of CVS’ announcement, First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted support and the internet lit up with commentary on the bold move, which CVS says will cost it $2 billion a year in sales but, it believes, will strengthen its brand identity as health care player.
On CVS’ Facebook page, more than 350,000 followers hit “like” and 26,000-plus posted comments, overwhelmingly favorable and very personal for those who had lost family members to lung disease and smoking-related illness.
A typical post: “ My father died from throat cancer and my mom is a life time smoker. You earned my loyalty for life.”
Added another: “I support this!!! Previous 18-year smoker and have been free for 2.5 years and still strong.”
Detractors complained that the decision impinged on freedom of choice or questioned why the pharmacy giant would continue to sell alcohol, candy, junk food or sugary sodas.
Wrote one: “So are you also going to stop selling beer, ice cream, etc., and the two AISLES of CANDY because as a health care company you should NOT be pushing products that promote alcoholism and obesity??? If not, then you are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites and I will immediately have all our family prescriptions transferred to Walgreens.”
I give credit to CVS’ social media team for responding to so many of the comments. Granted, the replies frequently cited the same statistics but there was a sincere effort to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with critics and supporters alike.
Smoke-free advocates also turned up the heat on Walgreens, the nation’s No. 1 pharmacy chain with 8,500 outlets, to follow CVS’ lead. “I hope I don’t have to pass by my corner Walgreens to support CVS now,” wrote one Facebook user.
Leading health organizations and officials publicly urged Walgreens, Rite-Aid, the National Association of Chain Drugstores and the mighty Walmart (the largest seller of cigarettes in the nation) to follow suit.
For CVS’ competitors, the real-time online debate is a game-changer. Rather than relying on focus groups or surveys, Walgreens and Rite Aid got an immediate, uncensored response from customers on this hot-button issue.
Politics and posturing aside, this comes down to economics and health care. The family doctor is being replaced by retail clinics at pharmacies, supermarkets and drop-in locations. A study by the consulting firm Accenture projects that the number of U.S. retail clinics is expected to double in the next three years due to healthcare reform. CVS employs 26,000 pharmacists and operates 800 MinuteClinics, where nurse practitioners see patients and write prescriptions.
(Anecdotal note: My college-age daughter went to a MinuteClinic on Sunday for conjunctivitis. Bad news – the wait was two hours, 20 minutes. Good news – it was open on Sunday and a one-stop experience).
CVS also is working more closely with insurers and health care providers on preventive health and smoking cessation programs, and managing chronic illnesses often exacerbated by tobacco use. “We’ve come to the decision that cigarettes have no place in an environment where healthcare is being delivered,” said CEO Larry Merlo.
This is not an issue for the clinics operated by Target, which stopped selling cigarettes in 1996 for price/inventory reasons, or the pharmacies at Wegmans, which dropped tobacco products in 2008, citing health concerns. The majority of independent pharmacies do not sell tobacco products.
After CVS’ announcement, a Walgreens spokesman said it would continue to evaluate its tobacco policy. Number three Rite Aid responded that selling tobacco products was legal and it also offered a variety of smoking cessation products. A Walmart spokesman confirmed it had received a letter from seven Democratic senators urging a tobacco ban.
I think the pressure will continue to escalate from health care advocates, insurers and consumers. Several cities, including San Francisco and Boston, have passed bans on tobacco sales in stores with pharmacies, but I believe CVS’ corporate decision is more meaningful and tamps down complaints about the “Nanny State.” It also pressures competitors who rely on the adolescent’s favorite argument that “everyone else is doing it.”
Clearly, at a huge Walmart, it is logistically easier to separate tobacco products from the pharmacy and clinic. Not so at a Walgreens, Rite Aid, Duane Reade or a supermarket with a clinic.
Bottom line: You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be in the business of promoting health and selling a product that kills 480,000 Americans each year.
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- KC's View: