The newswires have been buzzing with reports earlier this week that Walgreens plans to stop selling tobacco products to consumers under the age of 21. In what seemed to be only a few moments later, Rite Aid said it would do the same, cutting off access to tobacco products for anyone under 21 within 90 days. Walgreens' new policy is to take effect on September 1.
Eyes must be rolling at both the headquarters and retail outlets of CVS. After all, the company has taken a hit in profits since it announced it would stop selling tobacco, period, full stop, the end, back in 2014.
"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," said Eileen Howard Boone, director of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy at CVS Health and president of the CVS Health Foundation, told TriplePundit almost four years ago. She went on to say that contributing to these shocking statistics conflicted with the company's purpose of "helping people on their path to better health." Moreover, she made it clear that tobacco products pose "a significant threat to public health."
While Boone said there were many factors CVS 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."
Tobacco companies assumed the long backlash against smoking could result in a new focus on vaping products, which could keep profits flowing while reducing the public health risk that conventional tobacco products are known to impose. But that hasn’t gone exactly as planned.
“Take a look at JUUL, whose damage was accelerated by rapid scale,” said Barie Carmichael, senior counselor at APCO Worldwide, Batten Fellow at The University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate Business School and with the late James Rubin, is co-author of Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape, in an interview earlier this year with 3p.
The e-cigarette startup was launched by entrepreneurs who simply wanted to find a healthier alternative to smoking. The problem, however, was that teens took to JUUL like wildfire—and it turns out the brands’ nifty and flavorful products contained way more nicotine than conventional cigarettes. Plenty of research has suggested excessive nicotine consumption can harm brain development in teens.
JUUL changed its marketing tactics as the news for the company got worse, but those steps have not been enough to satisfy parents and public health advocates; and its customers have not exactly been happy with the changes either. As the controversy over these products surged last fall, the company was silent on Twitter for over a month until it responded to a U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on e-cigarettes. JUUL has since sold a 35 percent stake in the company to Altria. In a recent profile on the Financial Times, representatives for the brand suggested that transaction could help accelerate tobacco’s decline.
But if anything, public health officials, as well as CVS, should get the lion’s share of credit for tobacco’s demise. Rhode Island-based CVS, for example, has been distributing a total of over $1 million in grants to colleges and universities with the goal to increase the number of tobacco-free campuses across the U.S.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been accusing manufacturers and retailers of not doing enough to curb the spread of teen vaping—and keeps identifying more health problems, such as seizures, as a result of vaping’s popularity.
“Tobacco and vaping companies have supported the push to restrict sales to youth, partly in an apparent effort to distance themselves from accusations that they marketed their products to that same demographic,” Karen Zraick and Emily S. Rueb wrote in the New York Times. “At the same time, the companies have sought provisions that limit the regulation of tobacco products. For example, the companies fought back against efforts to limit flavored tobacco products, which are popular with teenagers.”
The popularity of vaping among teenagers reached a point at which Walgreens and its competitors were regularly busted by the FDA and other regulators after inspections found it was far too easy for underaged consumers to score these “smoke-free” products.
It is admirable that tobacco companies and the retailers selling their products say they are all for the eventual demise of tobacco. But with the exception of CVS, which changed its policies long before the outcry over vaping reached a crescendo pitch, this story is actually a case where on this front, the government was ahead of the private sector in this battle over public health.
Image credit: Nery Zarate/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.