CVS's announcement Wednesday that it would stop selling tobacco products by October drew praise from health advocates and some consternation from smokers.
"They are the first major seller of tobacco products to say they won't sell cigarettes, and their reasoning is one that I think is correct, but shocking: It's the right thing to do," said Benjamin Toll, director of the Smoking Cessation Service at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. "What's really shocking is that they're willing to take a $2 billion loss in revenue because it's the right thing to do, and I hope that there are other retailers who follow suit."
Toll was speaking on the phone from Seattle at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, where he said the announcement was "major news."
"They've changed the landscape by, instead of going with a business model of generating revenue, it's based on both generating revenue and doing the proper and perhaps ethical thing," he said. "Ideally, if we can get enough retailers to stop selling it — and this may take decades — we could potentially change a public health problem to a public health nuisance."
Outside of O'Toole's, an Irish bar in New Haven, Steve Vart's comments were a little more qualified. Vart, who stepped outside for a smoke, said he didn't have a problem philosophically with CVS's decision.
"It's society — we're trying to be healthier," he said, adding that he's in the military, where restrictions on smoking have also become common.
Practically, though, he has a problem with it because he lives in the Gales Ferry section of Ledyard, where his options for buying cigarettes are limited to Henny Penny and CVS. Henny Penny is open 24 hours, but CVS has all the other things he wants to buy.
"In the short term, it will affect me; in the long term, probably not," he said.
With 7,600 stores, CVS is the second-largest pharmacy chain in the U.S. Officials for Walgreens, the largest pharmacy chain, said they would not be taking similar steps for now.
"We will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want," Walgreens said in a statement.
Store's Most Popular Item
Inside a CVS in Enfield, clerk Ashley Shepard said that cigarettes were the store's most popular item and that the first three people who stop in each morning usually buy them. She said she hasn't heard many complaints yet about CVS's announcement but is bracing for Oct. 1, when she's sure to hear from customers.
As to what will fill the display behind the registers, Shepard laughed and shrugged her shoulders — gum or candy, maybe nicorette patches, she said.
In the long run, said Kate Sirignano of Image Marketing Consultants in Southington, the good publicity will be worth the customer complaints and revenue loss.
The estimated $2 billion in revenue is a lot to make up, she said, but by "reinforcing their brand" and differentiating themselves from big-box retailers, Sirignano said that ridding their stores of cigarettes will pay off.
"If I was going to have to choose between a CVS and a Walgreens that were right next to each other, I think I would go to the CVS," said Sirignano, marketing director and founder of the Southington company, which has worked on marketing campaigns for the Bank of America, American Red Cross and others. "They're really showing a commitment to their brand and they're encouraging a healthy lifestyle."
The impact on the bottom line might be enough to keep other pharmacy chains from following suit any time soon, she said, but CVS's move could start a slow-moving domino effect. One day pharmacies could even face a stigma for selling cigarettes, she said. Although it once seemed natural to smoke in bars in the Northeast, Sirignano said, she finds it jarring when she sees people smoking inside public establishments in other parts of the country.
Jody Sindelar, a professor of public health and a health economist at Yale, said she's not sure that the positive press will make up for the loss of sales.
"They'd have to create $2 billion worth of goodwill — that's a lot of goodwill," she said.