In quitting tobacco, CVS sends a clear message

The announcement from CVS Caremark that its drugstores will no longer sell tobacco products seems like a no-brainer. But when you're talking about a projected loss of $2 billion in revenue, the decision couldn't have been arrived at easily.

The announcement Wednesday morning from CVS Caremark that its drugstores will no longer sell tobacco products seems like a no-brainer. But when you're talking about a projected loss of $2 billion in revenue, the decision couldn't have been arrived at easily.

Still, CVS is receiving universal praise for announcing its more than 7,600 drugstores nationwide will stop selling cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco by October 1. Even President Barack Obama, who has been a smoker himself, said in a statement, “CVS Caremark sets a powerful example…ultimately saving lives and protecting untold numbers of families from pain and heartbreak for years to come.”

The benefits of this move are numerous, including: better health for us all, inspiring customers and patients to make smarter lifestyle choices, and maybe even lowering healthcare costs. But CVS is also sending a clear message about what kind of company it aspires to be.

With that in mind, here are three reasons CVS' move to no longer sell tobacco is inspired PR.

1. CSR: With this move, CVS establishes itself as a, if not the, American leader in corporate social responsibility: It looks beyond what is good for the bottom line, establishes a new standard for retail outlets that want to deliver healthcare, and will, perhaps, save lives in the long run. It's no secret that today's consumers want to do business with companies that are good corporate citizens. With this single announcement, it is likely CVS converted some agnostic shoppers into true believers.

2. On-brand messaging: If CVS is going to run pharmacies, minute clinics, and offer flu shots, getting rid of tobacco eliminates any hypocrisy and sends a clear message. Think about it: any drugstore that runs a pharmacy and sells tobacco is profiting off feeding the nicotine addiction and treating you when you've become chronically ill as a result. They're making money on both ends! According to CVS president Helena Foulkes, "Selling tobacco is very inconsistent with being in [the healthcare] business.” Well said.

3. Establishes CVS as a thought leader: Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chain, sells tobacco. Will they now feel the pressure to follow suit? Apparently, they already are. A Walgreens spokesman is quoted in Wednesday's papers saying his company has been evaluating tobacco products ‘‘for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs.'' By keeping tobacco on their shelves, Walgreens will appear, to some, to be more consumed with its own corporate interests over the lives of its “valued” customers.

With Wednesday's announcement, CVS didn't say what will take the place of tobacco's prominent location behind its cash registers. You can bet it won't be candy bars.

TJ Winick is VP at Solomon McCown & Company.

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