by Jason Poquette, BPharm, R.Ph
In a virtually unprecedented move among the largest retail pharmacy chains in our country, CVS pharmacy recently announced it would discontinue the sale of tobacco products by the end of this year. The move is predicted to take upwards of 2 billion dollars of revenue out of their stores. Though that is less than 2% of their total operating budget, a couple billion dollars is a pretty significant figure nonetheless.
The move has sparked a flurry of questions and debates about the motives behind this decision, some of which I admit to asking myself. Why now? Why wait until October to discontinue the sales? And why do we think this will translate into a healthier society and not just into wealthier convenience stores and competitors? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think they are all worth pondering.
But the move does provide the opportunity for me as a healthcare professional to address the public with a possibly far more important question: Will this change your mind about smoking? If a company is willing to forfeit 2 billion dollars in revenue because of the inescapable connection between smoking and death, are you willing to consider giving it up as well? Quitting cost CVS 2 billion dollars. What could quitting save you? I think we need to think this through.
According to some statistics, nearly 3200 children under the age of 18 try smoking for the first time every day. Many go on to become lifetime smokers, joining the nearly 42 million adults in the U.S. who smoke regularly. The CDC says that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the country, responsible for nearly one-half million deaths per year. Smoking tobacco is linked to 80% of lung cancers, and greatly increases the risk for many other cancers such cancers of the throat, mouth, stomach, kidney and pancreas. Smokers are also far more likely to die of heart attack and chronic lung diseases also. Secondhand smoke kills too.
Thankfully those who decide they want to quit have an array of resources available to help them. As a pharmacist I highly recommend looking at the available nicotine replacement products such as patches, lozenges and gum. Additionally, you can talk to your physician about prescription medications approved to reduce cravings for nicotine such a bupropion (Zyban) or varenicline (Chantix). None of these options are right for everyone, and the decision will still be difficult for many. Having sufficient social support and counseling resources has also been shown to improve the success of almost any program. Finally, there are online resources just a click away sponsored by the Massachusetts Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Program at www.makesmokinghistory.org. You don’t have to do it alone. And to make the choice a bit easier, many health plans offer substantial help by covering most or all of the cost of the nicotine replacement or oral prescription drugs.
Another “quitting” resource receiving significant attention these days are electronic cigarettes. The use of these products, which is called “vaping,” has dubious benefits at best. In fact the sale and production of electronic cigarettes may actually be leading more people to try smoking, rather than quit. The evidence is still pretty shaky, and more studies are needed. My personal advice for those who really want to quit is to utilize more proven strategies such as those mentioned above.
So CVS is quitting smoking. Maybe other retailers will follow suit. But the more important question to me is this: Will you?
Jason Poquette is a practicing pharmacist who lives in Whitinsville. His columns comment on drugs and pharmaceutical issues in the news. He maintains the blog www.TheHonestApothecary.com.