Every now and then, a company takes a bold step, walking away from a profitable line of business because it doesn’t align with their mission. Retail pharmacy chain CVS took such a step last year when it decided to stop selling tobacco products. I asked Eileen Howard Boone, SVP of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy at CVS, to help us to better understand the thinking behind this decision.
“Consider the statistics: 480,000 people die each year from tobacco-related illness; 42 million American adults and 3 million middle- and high-school students continue to smoke,” Boone told us. She went on to say that contributing to these shocking statistics clearly conflicts with the company’s purpose of “helping people on their path to better health.” Moreover, it poses “a significant threat to public health.”
While she said there were many factors the company considered in making the decision, “in the end, it was just the right thing to do for the health of our colleagues and our customers.”
Taking a short-term hit for long-term benefit
What makes this statement unusual is the fact that, by making it, the company is walking away from approximately $2 billion in annual tobacco sales, not to mention additional sales of health care products and services to all the people who become sicker as a result of smoking.
Boone calls the move as an investment. “This was a long-term decision that our board, our senior leaders and our stakeholders all agreed was in line with where we expect to be as a health care company in the future.”
Clearly the company is positioning itself in line with perceived opportunities. This includes the aging demographic, the continuous parade of medical advances, the increasing cost and complexity of the health care delivery system, and growing health consciousness among consumers.
“Now more than ever, pharmacies are on the front line of health care, becoming more involved in chronic disease management to help patients with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” Boone said.
“All of these conditions are worsened by tobacco use. As a pharmacy innovation company, we have the unique capability of aligning our 26,000 CVS/pharmacy pharmacists, our leading Pharmacy Benefits Management services, and our nurse practitioners at nearly 1,000 MinuteClinics to help people lead tobacco-free lives and manage their health.”
But for CVS, taking action to help reduce smoking “was not just about removing cigarettes from our stores,” Boone told 3p. “We also wanted to support smokers’ efforts to quit. That’s why we launched a uniquely personalized and comprehensive smoking cessation campaign designed to help smokers quit.
Going a step further: Smoking cessation
“Our innovative smoking cessation program taps our entire chain of CVS/pharmacy stores, our MinuteClinics and our leading administrator of prescription drug benefit coverage. These resources are supplemented with information online at as well as a smoking quit line operated by the American Cancer Society for additional support and access to services in local communities.”
The program appears to be gaining traction. From its launch on Sept. 3, 2014, through December 2014, CVS pharmacists counseled more than 67,000 patients filling a first prescription for a smoking cessation drug or prescription nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), and consulted with thousands more smokers seeking advice about over-the-counter NRT products. In addition, prescriptions for smoking cessation medications and visits to MinuteClinic for smoking cessation counseling increased on a monthly basis from the prior eight months. Purchases of over-the-counter NRT products that assist smokers trying to quit increased by 21 percent in that timeframe compared to the previous four months. And, customers picked up 2.3 million tobacco cessation brochures at CVS/pharmacy and thousands of “Last Pack” encouragement toolkits, reaching millions of additional smokers with education, information and support.
The company has taken its fight against tobacco beyond its stores as well. CVS Health Foundation recently launched a five-year, $5 million commitment to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids for a new “Making the Next Generation Tobacco-Free” grant program.
Through the program, the CVS Health Foundation is partnering with Tobacco-Free Kids to provide grants to organizations across the country that are committed to implementing public health strategies to reduce youth tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. Grants will support programs that help to reduce youth tobacco use, especially among at-risk populations, educate the public about the problem of and solutions to youth tobacco use in local communities, and increase youth engagement in tobacco prevention activities.