FILE - In this Wednesday, July 17, 2013 file photo, Marlboro cigarettes are on display in a CVS store in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CVS, the nation's second-largest drugstore chain, is kicking the habit of selling tobacco products as it continues to shift its focus toward being more of a health care provider.
The company said Wednesday that it will phase out cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco by Oct. 1 in its 7,600 stores nationwide, in a move that will help grow its business that works with doctors, hospitals and others to improve customers' health.
The move is the latest evidence of a big push in the drugstore industry that has been taking place over several years. Major drugstore chains have been adding in-store clinics and expanding their health care offerings. Their pharmacists deliver flu shots and other immunizations, and their clinics now manage chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes and treat relatively minor problems like sinus infections.
As CVS has been working to team up with hospital groups and doctor practices to help deliver and monitor patient care, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Troyen A. Brennan said the presence of tobacco in its stores has made for some awkward conversations.
"One of the first questions they ask us is, 'Well, if you're going to be part of the health care system, how can you continue to sell tobacco products?'" he said. "There's really no good answer to that at all."
CVS Caremark Corp., which has 7,600 stores nationwide, said it will lose about $2 billion in annual revenue by phasing out tobacco, but the move will not affect its 2014 earnings forecast. CVS notches about $1.5 billion annually in tobacco sales, but it expects a bigger hit because smokers often buy other products when they visit their stores. The company brought in more than $123 billion in total revenue in 2012.
The company's tobacco plan drew praise from President Barack Obama, who said the decision will help his administration's efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as lower health care costs.
The plan is also being applauded by anti-smoking advocates in Tennessee. A spokesperson for the American Lung Association said she was excited when she heard the announcement.
"It will have a positive effect on so many people," said Danielle Brown, Program Manager with the Tennessee Chapter of the American Lung Association. "This is certainly a step in the right direction of ending tobacco use for people in Tennessee and all over the United States."
A thoracic surgeon at TriStar Centennial Medical Center said she treats the side effects of cancer every day. She supports the change in policy.
"It never made a lot of sense to me you could buy your cigarettes and get medication for COPD at the same place," said Dr. Tammy Baxter. "I think that it sends the right message for a pharmacy which is becoming more active in healthcare to not sell thing that are bad for us."
Tobacco is responsible for about 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Food and Drug Administration, which gained the authority to regulate tobacco products in 2009.
CVS competitors Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp. both sell tobacco and smoking cessation products, as does the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which also operates pharmacies in its stores. But Target Corp., another major retailer with pharmacies, does not tobacco.
Both Walgreen and Rite Aid representatives said Wednesday that they are always evaluating what they offer customers and whether that meets their needs.
The nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said in a statement Wednesday that it is up to retailers to decide if they're going to sell tobacco products. Philip Morris is owned by Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc.
The share of Americans who smoke has fallen dramatically since 1970, from nearly 40 percent to about 18 percent. But the rate has stalled since about 2004, with about 44 million adults in the U.S. smoking cigarettes.
Students in the Academy of Energy and Power at Maplewood are busy getting ready for next week's Project Expo and had the opportunity to show it off some of their projects to Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper.