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CVS Makes the Right Call on Tobacco

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My father's drug store was the only pharmacy in our small North Carolina town when I was growing up. I worked there during the summers and after school from junior high throughout my college years. The store was typical of independent pharmacies of the era -- soda fountain, toiletries, gifts, magazines and the like -- before huge chains shut most of them down. That's not bitterness, just the facts.

A paradox I recall from my youth was the juxtaposition of a cigarette machine at the front of the store and medicine to treat smoking-related diseases housed at the rear. The pull-lever machine just inside the store's entrance sold smokes for 35 cents a pack when I was a kid. The store also sold lighters and cigars. It didn't make sense to me then and it doesn't make sense to me now to sell tobacco products in a store that exists to provide health care.

Apparently, CVS Caremark, the 7,600-unit drug store chain, agrees. On Feb. 5, the Rhode Island-based conglomerate said it would phase out all tobacco products, including chewing tobacco, by October 2014. "One of the first questions [doctors and hospital groups] ask us is, 'Well, if you're going to be part of the health care system, how can you continue to sell tobacco products?'" CVS CEO Larry Merlo said. "There's really no good answer to that at all."

My pharmacist father smoked for 35 years, until he had a heart attack at the age of 58. He smoked when he ate, when he read the paper, when he mowed the grass, and even when he counted out pills and poured them into glass bottles with typewritten labels. For a time he used a lengthy white cigarette holder to reduce the carcinogens he knew he was inhaling, making him look as though Batman's nemesis the Penguin was filling prescriptions for the farmers, lawyers and other folk who puffed on their own cigarettes as they waited for medicine to treat their colds, emphysema, cancer and other ills.

After Dad had that heart scare at a young age, he stopped smoking cold turkey. He walked two miles a day after that, and his diet improved. Eight years later, he collapsed on the floor of my boyhood home with stabbing pain in his abdomen. Two weeks later he was dead of liver, lung and esophageal cancer. He was 66. Too many years of the nicotine habit wore on his body.

Before Dad died, our hometown drug store got some competition from a new and much larger Rite Aid pharmacy. Dad professed not to be worried, declaring that he was going to "out-nice" the chain store to keep his customer base. He and his business partner held their own for a while, and eventually it was the Rite Aid that closed. It was quickly replaced by a CVS store, and after Dad died, his partner sold out and went to work for CVS, where he remains on the payroll. I was angry -- and worried -- when the chains swooped in and tried to put my father out of business, but the ban on tobacco leavens my attitude toward CVS considerably.

Some years ago, an acquaintance working as the public information officer of a large hospital left that job to work as a PR officer for a major tobacco company. How could he do that, I wondered. How could he promote healthcare one day and push a disease-causing product the next? Was he a mercenary, or just practical?

Life is seldom so black and white. There's more to my own health care vs. tobacco story. My grandparents were tobacco farmers. They had a small farm -- literally 40 acres and a mule, later replaced by a tractor. Dad raised tobacco on that farm to offset his expenses in pharmacy school, becoming the first person in our family to attend college. I was the second.

The irony is not lost on me that tobacco provided the means to a better life for our family.

Here's another irony -- despite working in the tobacco fields, my father never smoked until he went to college. Tobacco companies in North Carolina used to give free samples of their wares to college students, and he got hooked. I recall attractive young women on the sidewalks of Winston-Salem, home to RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., offering cigarette samples when I was in college some 25 years later.

Unlike Dad, I have never smoked. That doesn't mean I didn't inhale a lot of it, mostly in the back seat of the car as Dad puffed away in the front. When you are rescued from a burning building, firefighters often treat you for smoke inhalation. Why, exactly, would I pay for the privilege of inhaling smoke from a piece of toxic paper that is on fire and dangling from my lips?

Obviously, I am no fan of tobacco for a variety of reasons. I have seen the harm it can cause. Yet, I know that I wouldn't be where I am in life if it weren't for that little farm.

I applaud CVS for taking a major financial hit by divesting itself of tobacco in all its forms. In the cable series Mad Men, Don Draper makes the decision to no longer accept tobacco accounts at his advertising agency and is ridiculed for it. CVS has its detractors as well.

The Providence (RI) Journal quoted RJ Reynolds spokesman David Howard as saying the company "respects" CVS's tobacco ban. "We value the long-term relationship we had with CVS and respect their commercial decision," he said. "We will work with them as they transition out of the tobacco category in the coming months."

RJR and other companies are well aware that drug stores account for a minuscule percentage of their sales. As long as there are convenience stores, Walmarts and gas stations, there will be cigarettes.

The choice CVS has made is a financial gamble and goes against conventional wisdom. The CEO says the decision was based on principle, and I take him at his word. Good for CVS. Good for all of us.