Why CVS Really Stopped Selling Cigarettes

| by Will Hagle

Pharmacy chains that sell cigarettes have long been viewed as hypocritical. Although prescription drugs can have negative side effects and health care will always be an imperfect service, the addictive qualities and health threats of cigarettes have been readily apparent for several decades. 

This September, CVS finally cleared all of its stores of cigarettes and tobacco-related products. The move was carried out under the guise of an act in service of greater public health awareness. The less accessible cigarettes are, the less people will smoke. The move was especially bold considering CVS is expected to lose an estimated $2 billion in annual tobacco sales.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, however, exposed the method in which CVS expects to earn back that lost profit. Caremark, the pharmacy benefits manager and subsidiary of CVS, will reportedly soon begin charging an extra co-payment for subscriptions filled at any pharmacy carrying cigarettes or tobacco. In some cases, the extra cost could be as high as $15. This gives an incentive for customers to use CVS, leaving large chain pharmacies that do sell tobacco products at a disadvantage. 

CVS’s purported attempt to create a “tobacco-free” network of pharmacies is rooted in noble intentions, but the fact that its spurred on by competition-reducing practices demonstrates one of the major problems with America’s for-profit health industry. Cigarettes may be a threat to public health, but they are a legal product that can be sold in stores. Pharmacies make a lot of money selling them. CVS claims to want to end America’s addiction to tobacco, but the only way it can afford to do so is by inventing a co-pay rule that forces charges on other chains and smaller, independent pharmacies. 

It may be a sneaky tactic, but it also may be CVS’s only option. A study from the Society for the Study of Addiction found that higher cigarette prices have an inverse relationship with smoking prevalence. A 10% price increase generally results in 3-5% reduction in smoking. CVS’s own study claims that tobacco bans in San Francisco and Boston led to a 13.3% decrease in the total number of people buying cigarettes in those areas. Reducing accessibility and increasing prices are effective ways to curb the known dangerousness and addictiveness of tobacco, but it’s a shame that profitability has to play such a significant role in what should otherwise be a public health issue.