CVS chief exec Merlo discusses health-focused rebrand success

Selling tobacco at CVS Health's more than 7,700 stores contradicted the company's purpose and created a barrier for partnerships before the products were pulled from shelves last month, said president and CEO Larry Merlo.

Selling tobacco at CVS Health’s more than 7,700 stores contradicted the company’s purpose and created a barrier for partnerships before the products were pulled from shelves last month, said president and CEO Larry Merlo.

Merlo divulged some of the pharmacy chain’s reasons behind the decision to stop selling tobacco products – which the company announced in February and made official in September – at a roundtable hosted by Legacy for Health on Tuesday.

Last month, the company also rebranded its corporate entity as CVS Health to emphasize its mission, though its stores will continue to be known as CVS/Pharmacy.

Entitled "Counter" Marketing: An In-Depth Look at Tobacco Retail Sales, the roundtable was moderated by Reuters reporter Toni Clarke, and panelists included Merlo; Thomas Kirchner, PhD and research investigator at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies; Kurt Ribisl, PhD and professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina; and Elizabeth Kilgore, director of communications for Chronic Disease Prevention and Tobacco Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"The role of pharmacies is changing," said Merlo, who talked about CVS’ commitment to partnering with health systems to better serve customers.

Going forward, the company has no plans to sell e-cigarettes, unless the Food and Drug Administration should ever determine that they play a role in tobacco smoking cessation, he added.

When the Woonsocket, RI-based pharmacy chain announced it would stop selling tobacco products, Merlo said he expected support from special interest groups, like Legacy, but the response from consumers was "tremendous."

CVS drew high praise for its #OneGoodReason campaign launched in conjunction with the announcement early last month.

Here are some tweets from the Tuesday’s event:

On the local level, some cities are ramping up efforts to reduce smoking and prevent addiction among youths. Kilgore talked about New York City’s seemingly tireless effort to discourage smoking. Some lasting efforts have included the pricing – she said the average cost of a pack of smokes is $11 and has seen some top $13 – and increasing the purchasing age to 21. The city was forced to pull graphic ads in 2012 after retaliation from members of the tobacco industry, including Philip Morris USA.

Ribisl said Chicago has been steadfast in its mission to keep tobacco out of minors’ hands. The city passed an ordinance that went into effect today, prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products by any "Chicago-based retailer located within a 500 foot radius of any elementary, middle, or secondary school."

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