Column: How CVS Can Really Be a Leader in Health

The second-largest drug store chain in the country has announced it will no longer sell cigarettes. Changing its corporate name to CVS health, the company had previously vowed it was going to discontinue tobacco products in all of its 7,600 stores by October 1but like ripping off a Band-Aid, they instead did it quickly, when we weren’t expecting it.

I write this as we wait to hear the results of a family member’s (a long-term smoker) biopsy. Those cruel hours ticking by anticipating the worst, hoping for the best, wondering what could be next. I take some solace in this wide-reaching change in corporate policy at such a large company. Based on numbers from Boston stores discontinuing sales, CVS estimates their nationwide policy could mean 65,000 fewer tobacco deaths a year. And if other chains follow, even better.

I’ve been noting the bizarre conflict of interest at drug stores for years: You have to walk through all the stuff that makes you sick in order to get your medicine. American drug stores are planned as one giant display of impulse items cradling a pharmacy in the center. When you enter the store, cheap cigars, cheaper wine and junk food share shelf space with diabetes supplies. You can buy a Slim Jim meat stick with your gout meds, get your blood pressure checked when you pick up some Ben & Jerry’s, and grab some Red Bull to wash down your Ambien.

You get the picture. Drug stores have relied on a design seemingly more invested in giving sick people “choices” than caring about their customers’ health. If you talk to small independent drugstore owners they’ll tell you this is because selling pharmaceuticals has a low profit margin. That’s how we’ve ended up with our health-care destinations being subsidized by unhealthy (read: more profitable) temptations.

At most big chain drug stores you can still get your smokes rung up with your COPD inhaler. But CVS said selling tobacco conflicted with their “health care mission” so they’ve opted out of the practice.

Good call. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco-related illnesses lead in preventable deaths in the U.S.

And coming in at a close second? Obesity. “Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death,” notes the CDC.

We’ve gotten really good at ostracizing smokers and educating people on the health risks associated with the addiction. We put warnings on cigarettes and even movies featuring cigarettes. We pass laws to raise taxes and raise stigma. We banish smokers from decent society and it’s worked: Smoking is down from 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012 according to the American Cancer Society. For CVS, tobacco sales only accounted for 2 percent of their total revenue.

But when it comes to horrible food—empty calories, nutritionally void, sugar-packed, over-processed “treats”—we pretend it’s just a market-driven quagmire. The junk food industry touts the idea of choices and moderation to mitigate their part in an all-consuming health epidemic. This while millions of American live in food deserts without access to affordable fresh groceries. We all tend to tiptoe around why Americans generally, and especially poor Americans, are obese: Our over-saturated offerings of extremely affordable food-like products.

If CVS is serious about their health-care mission, they can help with this. They can facilitate their customers relying less on their pharmacy, and more on healthy living. “Today, as CVS Health, we are tobacco-free, reinventing pharmacy and taking our place among leaders in the health care community,” said Larry J. Merlo, President and CEO, CVS Health in their press release.

If CVS really wants to be a leader they can stop being a convenience store that fills prescriptions and start being a health care store: Offer real food and real advice about health and weight. Be mindful of our ever-expanding health crisis.

Since CVS has tackled the low-hanging fruit of tobacco, next should be…well…actual fruit.


Photo by Mike Mozart