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CVS to stop selling tobacco products on Oct. 1

CVS/Caremark, the largest drugstore chain in the country, has kicked the habit. Effective Oct. 1, it will stop selling all tobacco products.

The decision announced Wednesday — a ground-breaking acknowledgement of how far tobacco has fallen out of favor — affects more than 7,600 stores nationwide, 716 in Florida.

It will cost CVS about $2 billion a year in revenue, a fraction of its overall sales of $123 billion in 2012. But the retailer is angling to generate goodwill and support from anti-smoking shoppers to help offset that.

"CVS quits for good," the company heralded on its website Wednesday, using a smoking cigarette with a red slash through it as emphasis.

The retailer said the sale of cigarettes was "inconsistent with its purpose'' in promoting good health. Analysts said the move was another sign of the company becoming more of a health care provider than a predominantly retail business.

Florida's state Surgeon General, Dr. John Armstrong, was among those quickly applauding CVS. "Removing cigarettes from their more than 700 locations in Florida is welcome news for the families and communities of our state," he said. "I urge other retailers to follow suit."

The Walgreen Co. drugstore chain, an archrival with CVS in Florida, said it was evaluating the decision.

Beyond health reasons driving CVS, dropping tobacco is also "an incredibly smart" marketing decision, said Christine Turner, a principal with Tampa advertising and marketing agency ChappellRoberts.

The short-term loss of billions of dollars in revenue will be offset by the long-term payoff as a pioneer, she said. "The strongest brands have had to make strategic decisions, sometimes hard ones, that have had (an initial) loss. But it's the smart big-picture thing.

"They want to be a leader for health care delivery. For that brand … they can't have a shelf full of cigarettes and tobacco products behind the checkout station."

Turner said CVS appears to be on the right side of a trend as more entities ban tobacco sales and the allure of cigarettes wanes. Smoking has gone down significantly — from 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 18 percent today.

The Woonsocket, R.I.-based drugstore chain was getting widespread support across the Twitterverse on Wednesday, a phenomenon that only occurred because CVS was a leader, Turner said.

"What's the long-term brand value of being aligned with those powerhouse health companies?" she asked. "To be the first at something (means) no one else will ever catch up."

Most shoppers outside a CVS store in downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday said stopping cigarette sales seemed a sensible and effective way to promote health and increase awareness about the dangers of cigarettes.

"I think this is a good thing. Smoking is just bad,'' said Kevin Jacques, 21, of Miami, a student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Jessie Thomas, 28, of St. Petersburg is a nonsmoker, but felt people should have a right to smoke.

"They should be able to buy cigarettes wherever they go,'' he said.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, said the CVS decision was "an unprecedented step in the retail industry" and predicted it would have "considerable impact."

Sebelius said that each day, some 3,200 children under 18 will try a cigarette for the first time and 700 will go on to become daily smokers. That means, she said, that 5.6 million American children alive today will die prematurely due to diseases linked to smoking.

"Today's CVS/Caremark announcement helps bring our country closer to achieving a tobacco-free generation," she said. "I hope others will follow their lead in this important step to curtail tobacco use."

Sebelius' boss and former smoker President Barack Obama echoed her praise, calling it a "powerful example."

The country's top tobacco companies, at least publicly, took the news in stride.

"It is up to retailers to decide if they are going to sell tobacco products,'' said William Phelps, a spokesman at Altria Group Inc., which makes Marlboro cigarettes, among other brands, and boasts a roughly 50 percent share of the U.S. tobacco market.

CVS pharmacists deliver flu shots and other immunizations, and clinics in the stores also have been expanding the scope of care they deliver. They now help people manage chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes in addition to treating minor illnesses like sinus infections.

CVS/Caremark CEO Larry Merlo noted that conditions like those are made worse by smoking.

"Removing tobacco products from our stores is an important step in helping Americans to quit smoking and get healthy," he said.

The company declined to say what will take tobacco's prominent shelf place behind cash registers at the front of its stores. CVS will test some items and may expand smoking cessation products that are already sold near cigarettes.

Walgreens, which has 857 locations in Florida, previously dismissed the notion of a tobacco ban.

"When you consider that 20 percent of all Americans use tobacco products and expect to find those items in our stores, we'd be at a tremendous competitive disadvantage if we didn't offer them," Michael Polzin, a Walgreen Co. vice president, told the Chicago Tribune in May.

On Wednesday, the company was more noncommittal.

"We have been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs," Walgreens spokeswoman Emily Hartwig said. "We will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want.''

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Random reaction

More reaction from Tampa Bay shoppers to the CVS decision to stop selling tobacco products:

• "I think it's great," Michael Flynn, 76, said. His wife, Roni, 68, disagreed. She said it was "kind of stupid" and said she didn't get the point of the decision. "That's not going stop them from smoking. It's like Prohibition," she said

• "I quit smoking eight years ago and I'm glad I finally did it," Elise Hauck, 73, said. Hauck added she thinks it's a good thing, and a model other stores should follow. "I think they're too available to the young kids," she said.

Debbie Westerfield, 60, said she thinks the move is smart. "My younger brother and younger sister died from cigarettes," she said. Her sister was 52 and her brother was 49 when they died from lung cancer.

CVS to stop selling tobacco products on Oct. 1 02/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 6, 2014 12:17am]
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