By Noam N. Levey and Tiffany Hsu, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — CVS Caremark, the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain, plans to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its more than 7,600 retail stores by Oct. 1, a landmark decision that would make it the first national pharmacy company to cease tobacco sales.
The move, which the company announced Wednesday, comes after years of pressure from public health advocates and medical providers, who have urged retailers to make tobacco products and advertising less available, particularly to children and teenagers.
It also marks a major turn for one of the country’s biggest healthcare companies, which said it is giving up about $2 billion in annual sales, or about 1.6 percent of the company’s 2012 revenues.
CVS, which is second only to Walgreen Co. in retail locations, has been steadily increasing its business providing medical care through its pharmacists and a growing number of urgent care clinics at its retail locations.
“As the delivery of healthcare evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care,” Larry J. Merlo, the president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”
CVS, based in Woonsocket, R.I., also pledged to launch what it called a “robust national smoking cessation program” this spring.
Nationwide, less than 5 percent of cigarette sales occurred in pharmacies in 2009, according to a study by the Center for Global Tobacco Control. But sales at pharmacies have been increasing, even as overall cigarette sales declined.
Public health advocates hailed the CVS decision, expressing optimism that it could catalyze new efforts to curb tobacco use.
“This is a bold step,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “CVS is clearly establishing a leadership position in making the country healthier and in building a culture of health.”
Half a century after the ground-breaking U.S. Surgeon General’s report warning of the dangers of smoking, the nation has dramatically cut smoking rates for adults from 42 percent in 1965 to just 19 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But public health advocates have grown concerned that progress has stalled in recent years.
No major retailer has taken steps to limit tobacco sales since Target announced in 1996 that it would stop selling tobacco products.