Courageous Action Will Save Lives and Billions of Dollars

cvs pharmacy (store)*WASHINGTON, D.C.  —  The courageous action by the CVS Pharmacy chain to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products is likely to save lives and billions of dollars, as well as spark state and local legislation to ban the sale of tobacco products in all pharmacies, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, the man behind the ban on cigarette commercials and the nonsmokers’ rights movement.

“It’s a courageous decision because in the short run CVS is likely to lose money, both from the sale of cigarettes, but also from the sale of other products as some smokers chose other pharmacies at which to shop,” says Banzhaf.

But, in the longer run, they are betting that it will help their bottom line by improving their public image as a leader in the industry by giving up sales they and other pharmacies should never have been making, says Banzhaf, noting that hospitals long ago were shamed into ending cigarette sales.  “CVS is doing well by doing good,” he says.

The decision is likely to help reduce smoking in at least two ways. First, since so many people get their cigarettes in CVS stores in many regions, they will be forced to shop elsewhere, and any changes in habits may force smokers to rethink their smoking habit, or at least make it somewhat less convenient to indulge it.

More importantly, by getting rid of cigarette displays and ads, CVS is sending a strong message that smoking and good health are completely inconsistent – a message likely to be as strong as those in the government’s new antismoking educational campaign.

Banzhaf, who’s been called  “Mr. Anti-Smoking,” the “Ralph Nader of the Tobacco Industry,” and “One of the Most Vocal and Effective Anti-Tobacco Attorneys,” notes that national health and antismoking organizations have for years been trying to obtain legislation banning the sale of tobacco products by pharmacies.

But they have always been met by arguments from tobacco lobbyists and their legislative allies that the step was unnecessary, would go too far, would be too harmful to the companies, etc.  But the CVS decision undercuts all of those arguments:  a major pharmacy is declaring that the step is necessary, does not seem unreasonable or go too far, and is not too harmful.

It also arms those seeking such legislation with a powerful new argument, one which worked so well when some restaurants first began banning smoking.  In such situations, antismoking activists were able to argue successfully that laws banning smoking in restaurants were necessary for fundamental fairness – that there should be a “level playing field” so that restaurants which act to protect the public health by banning smoking should not be put at an unfair advantage with their competitors.

Just as that argument resonated with legislators then, it’s likely to help persuade legislators now – a level playing field demands that all pharmacies be prohibited from selling cigarettes, just as all restaurants were prohibited from permitting smoking.

CVS’s move was probably prompted in part by a growing public concern, reflected in survey after survey, and by ever growing taxes on tobacco products, that smoking must be reduced, even if it means some hardship for smokers, because it is so costly to the American economy.

Nonsmokers are increasingly realizing that smoking costs our economy some $300 billion a year, most of which is paid by nonsmokers in the form of higher taxes and bloated health insurance premiums – a concern many nonsmokers are now facing as a result of premium increases under Obamacare.

Every smoking employee can cost his company some $12,000 each and every year – by reducing the number of smoking employees, companies can hire more workers.  CVS is trying to ride if not get ahead of this curve of public concern about the huge costs of smoking, saying to the public that it will do its part, even if it may temporarily hurt their sale.

I hope – and CVS almost certainly believes – that the public will reward their action, probably by shifting some of their patronage from other pharmacies which openly display and sell products likely to kill almost half of their users, says Banzhaf.

Reprinted by permission

John Banzhaf III

John Banzhaf III

Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
2000 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052, USA
(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418 @profbanzhaf