CVS STOPPED selling cigarettes last week. The move may be little more than a business calculation for the pharmacy chain. But it is one worth cheering: It makes the sale of cigarettes less ubiquitous, and it shows that, after decades of effort, smoking is getting the stigma it deserves.
CVS wants to be known for more than running convenience stores: With demand for and spending on health care both rising, the company is aggressively expanding its prescription drug business and its “minute clinic” chain, offering basic health services such as flu shots and blood pressure readings. It plans to have 1,500 rudimentary clinics open in 2017. Ending cigarette sales will help rebrand the company and forge relationships with other players in the health-care industry.
Give CVS credit. The company is forgoing some $2 billion in annual revenue to make its anti-tobacco play. Regardless of the motivation, the company will have washed its hands of a deadly, addictive social ill. Teenagers may have a harder time buying tobacco products. CVS’s effort to increase the availability of basic health services is also welcome, particularly now that the Affordable Care Act is encouraging more people to use preventive health care rather than waiting for flare-ups and then visiting emergency rooms. Any company that takes a risk to stand on the right side of public health deserves congratulations. It will save lives.
More broadly, CVS’s move says a lot about American society’s relationship with tobacco. The company’s conclusion that selling cigarettes fundamentally conflicts with the mission of advancing people’s health caps a revolution in American thinking. Gone are the days when tobacco companies could successfully fog up the facts, sowing enough doubt about the deadliness of their products that they could minimize fear among potential or current addicts. After more than a half-century of effort by scientists, doctors and advocates to change attitudes, cigarette ads from years ago featuring doctors, dentists, singers and sports stars have become obviously perverse. They would be laughable if they didn’t represent a concerted campaign to hook people on a cocktail of inhaled poisons.
Smoking has proven a difficult addiction to eradicate, with roughly a fifth of American adults still lighting up. It remains the leading cause of preventable death in the country, and tobacco companies continue to hook new customers overseas. The Food and Drug Administration is still in the early stages of its effort to fully regulate the tobacco industry. Tobacco consumption won’t end soon. But most Americans understand why that’s a worthwhile goal.