People Are Smoking Less Since CVS Stopped Selling Tobacco Last Year

By May Wilkerson 09/04/15

The pharmacy chain store was the first in the nation to ban the sale of cigarettes.

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Cigarette sales have gone down since CVS stopped selling tobacco products a year ago, according to new statistics presented by the company.

CVS Health Corp., made the move last September as part of a decision to focus more broadly on health care. In the eight months that followed, researchers found a 1% overall decline in state-wide cigarette sales in states where CVS is a primary drug store, compared to states with no CVS stores.

That may not seem like a lot, but 1% is enough to show that the company’s move made a significant impact on people’s smoking habits. “It looks like one way to get people to smoke less is to stop selling cigarettes,” said Steven Schroeder, head of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California at San Francisco. “It is a modest impact but it is favorable.”

Troyen Brennan, CVS’s chief medical officer, said the decrease “is very statistically significant. We see a decrease in all the states in which we have a presence,” he said. Greater decreases were seen in the states where the company has the largest number of stores, which Brennan says suggests “a causal relationship.”

According to the study, the company's decision to halt tobacco sales resulted in about 95 million fewer cigarette packs sold, or five fewer packs per person. Though this pales in comparison to the estimated 269 billion cigarettes smoked by Americans in 2014, the data suggests that at least some people who had purchased their tobacco at CVS either cut back or quit.

CVS, which has 7,800 retail pharmacies across the country, estimates that its stores held roughly 1.5% to 2% of the U.S. tobacco market, worth about $2 billion in annual sales. The company took a hit in sales after the decision, and revenues fell roughly 7.8% in the second quarter from a year before. But they were lauded by a number of public-health advocates, and Michelle Obama even invited the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Larry Merlo, to be a guest at January’s State of the Union speech.

Given the apparent success of their plan, it remains to be seen if other pharmacy chains will follow suit. “We thought there was a possibility we could reduce overall use of tobacco, and indeed it appears that is what happened,” said Brennan. “It is very rare to get this kind of natural experiment.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.