A year after CVS, one of the nation’s largest drugstore chains, decided to stop selling cigarettes, it said its decision has led to a decrease in cigarette sales across all retailers in 13 states.
In data being released Thursday, CVS said its action resulted in a 1 percent drop in total cigarette sales in 13 states where the pharmacy chain had a sizable market share. For the eight-month period after CVS pharmacies pulled cigarettes from its shelves, the reduction was the equivalent of the average smoker in those states buying five fewer packs of cigarettes, or a total of 95 million fewer packs.
When CVS announced its decision last year — part of a bid to boost its image as an all-around health-care provider — public health officials and even President Obama, a former smoker, applauded the action. But some experts also wondered whether it would have an effect on overall tobacco use.
Some anti-tobacco groups said the results were significant and called for other retailers to follow CVS’s lead. Others were skeptical that the retailer could claim all the credit for a drop in sales, since overall smoking rates have been declining in the United States.
Troyen Brennan, chief medical officer for CVS Health, said many people thought that smokers would simply go elsewhere to buy cigarettes once the chain stopped selling them. “What this research shows is that we were right,” he said. By removing a convenient place to buy cigarettes, he said, “we had an overall impact on sales of tobacco products.”
Smoking remains the single most preventable cause of death and disease in this country, responsible for more than 480,000 deaths a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 42 million people in the United States, or about 18 percent of the poulation, still smoke.
Last year, Americans bought, on average, about 40 million packs of cigarettes a day, down from nearly 60 million packs of a day in 2000, according to federal data.
Restricting access to tobacco is one of several strategies that has been shown to help people quit smoking.
For its analysis, CVS compiled cigarette sales from six different types of stores: drugstores, grocers, big box, dollar, convenience and gas stations. The retailer compared cigarette sales in 13 states where CVS had at least 15 percent of the pharmacy market, to three states with no CVS branches. The states were Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. The three states without CVS stores were Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
“I think people would be surprised that a single store, even one as large as CVS, could have a direct and measurable effect on tobacco use in the community in which it has a significant presence,” said Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
A 1 percent drop in sales may not seem like a big number, he said. “But given the number of smokers, it’s an extraordinary impact,” he said. He said the organization will be calling on other major retailers to take similar action.
Brian King, a senior researcher at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, said the findings were consistent with available evidence on effective methods to influence tobacco use. The CVS results, he said, “underscore an emerging tobacco-control initiative.” He noted that it has the potential to influence others to consider similar policies.
Other experts said it was more difficult to assess the impact of CVS’s move.
“What is due to the CVS action, and what is due to the fact that people are consuming fewer cigarettes?” said Saul Shiffman, a University of Pittsburgh psychology professor who has studied smoking and smoking cessation for more than four decades.
Although the CVS action is “absolutely the right thing to do,” the value of the action is more in the retailer’s leadership and less in figuring out how that translates to fewer cigarettes sold, he said.
In states where there have been few strong anti-smoking efforts, such as North Carolina and Georgia, he said, “they are more in a position to see a decline overall that may have nothing to do with CVS.”
Brennan, of CVS Health, said the retailer’s analysis took individual state differences into account. Although the study wasn’t designed to look at state-specific effects, the impact was largest in states where CVS had greater market share. Virginia and Indiana had some of the biggest drops in cigarette sales.