CVS kicks the habit

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 6, 2014

Almost as soon as CVS announced it would cease selling tobacco products at its drugstores, online commenters raised an obvious question.
Why pull tobacco products while stores continue to stock sugar-filled drinks and snacks? Obesity, after all, is at epidemic proportions, health experts tell us. Just this week, a major new study linked diets high in sugar with increased risks of heart problems. That link showed up even in people who weren’t overweight but did consume added amounts of the sweet stuff.
Isn’t there a whiff of hypocrisy here — or at least a merchandising paradox?
CVS officials didn’t address that question directly. Explaining the tobacco decision, they cited the conflict between the health risks of cigarettes and CVS’ commitment to health care and increasing its footprint in the medical services sector. CVS President Helena Foulkes described it as “good for business and the right thing to do.” In other words, CVS expects the loss of $2 billion annual tobacco sales to be more than offset by the positive impact of tossing out tobacco.
Give the company a cigar — or perhaps a handful of healthy nuts. With the multitude of stores selling tobacco products, the CVS ban is unlikely to dent overall tobacco sales. But when a major big-box chain kicks the habit, it reinforces the message that smoking and a healthy lifestyle simply aren’t compatible. That’s a message increasingly adopted by private industry as well as governments, with Salisbury’s ban on smoking in city parks a recent local example.
As for the widespread sale and consumption of sugary sodas and snacks, we’ll note two things. While there’s no “safe” level for tobacco use, health experts say moderate consumption of sugary treats isn’t going to kill anyone. You can enjoy occasional indulgences. Just don’t overdo it. Also, it’s taken 50 years for the anti-tobacco movement to reach this point. Initially, the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 warning got a lot of pushback from the tobacco industry, leading to the landmark state lawsuits of the 1990s, and it met with skepticism among many smokers as well. Decades of medical studies have squashed those doubts, while the share of Americans who smoke has dropped from nearly 40 percent in 1970 to about 18 percent today. We’re still in the relatively early stages of research into the health effects of excessive sugar intake.
It’s tempting to play off a macaroon against a Marlboro, but there’s no inherent contradiction in CVS’ decision, nor any reason to doubt its commitment to promoting healthier lifestyles. While people will continue to smoke, CVS has chosen not to support that addictive habit. If its stores can also do more to promote healthier diets, that would be icing on the cupcake.