ADVERTISEMENT

CVS Caremark, the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain, has tacked in a dramatic new direction with its plan to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its more than 7,600 retail stores.

When the ban takes effect by Oct. 1, CVS will be the first national pharmacy company to cease tobacco sales. It’s the biggest such announcement by a major retailer since Target announced in 1996 that it would stop selling tobacco products.

The CVS decision is being appropriately lauded by anti-smoking advocates and medical professionals. It should encourage other pharmacies, including the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, Walgreen Co., to follow suit. However, as welcome as the CVS move is, it shouldn’t be forced on other companies.

It was six years ago that Wegmans supermarket officials made the daring decision to discontinue sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products in stores. Soon after, legislation was proposed to ban the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies across the state. That move went too far in trying to control what should be a business decision.

However, businesses willing to step out as leaders in putting people ahead of profits deserve great credit.

For CVS, the move would mean an estimated $2 billion hit in sales from customers buying cigarettes and other products along with the smokes. That’s a bold decision even for a company with sales of $123 billion in 2012.

In one sense the move is overdue. As evidence piled up of the deadly effects of tobacco, there was a contradiction that a store devoted to health would be peddling a deadly, although legal, product. The thought of someone purchasing a few packs of cigarettes along with a prescription and some vitamins is mind-boggling in an era of increasing health awareness.

CVS officials seemed to think so, too. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” Larry J. Merlo, the president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

These days, the purpose of pharmacies has expanded from filling prescriptions and selling over-the-counter remedies to include providing health care information and flu shots and other services. Merlo points to the company’s more than 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners helping patients manage chronic problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which are linked to smoking.

Given the historic timing – half a century after the groundbreaking U.S. Surgeon General’s report warning of the dangers of smoking, a report heavily influenced by research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute – the CVS announcement is pivotal.

Smokers will easily find other places to get their cigarettes, but it will no longer be at CVS. More pharmacies should follow suit.