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Dr. Saud Anwar Headshot

'Smoke and Mirrors': Eliminating Tobacco from Pharmacies

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QUITTING SMOKING
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Jane (not her real name) was middle-aged, but looked older. She had been smoking since she was a teen. Now, her lungs were besieged by COPD. As a pulmonary physician, I treat many patients with lungs devastated by smoking. Jane had come to my office in search of a miracle. At best, I could only prescribe oxygen and medication, neither of which would cure the condition. For the rest of her life, an oxygen tank will be Jane's constant companion.

By now, almost everyone is aware of the hazards associated with cigarette smoking. Yet, everyday in United States, 3,200 persons -- younger than 18 -- smoke their first cigarette. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs in existence. Cigarette smoking is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the United States. Smokers place themselves, their families and those who are around them at risk through second-hand smoke.

This is America, where people have individual freedom. Smoking is a personal choice. At what point does the collective good take precedence over personal decisions? Drivers refused to wear seat belts until it was required by law. You and I pay - literally - for the cost of care and insurance for those persons who destroy their health. Productivity and health care losses, attributable to smoking, cost the nation at least $289 billion each year. Without legal limits, people can make personal decisions which ultimately impact all of us. In the same way, corporations can make decisions which are based purely on profit, but disregard the greater good.

Does an individual have a realistic chance of changing a deeply rooted culture? In September, 2012, I publicly expressed my concern that the South Windsor, CT, CVS pharmacy was openly displaying and selling smoking products. As a father, physician and Member of the Town Council, I argued for a resolution that would ban our town's CVS from selling cigarettes and tobacco products. Not everyone agreed with me. Several Council members felt that that corporations, like people, have every right to sell whatever they chose. However, as with people, with rights come responsibilities. Although my motion was defeated, I continued to express my concerns to the public.

The tobacco industry has employed any number of "mirrors" or illusions to distract people from the harm done by their products. It is important to note that young people have been the target of cigarette advertising for decades. The attempt to normalize or main-stream smoking behavior is something that tobacco companies have pursued in a methodical way. When people see cigarettes displayed at the cash register, it appears to be a regular "part of life." Health care providers, such as pharmacies, send a mixed-message when they promote a product that has been identified as "hazardous to health" by the Surgeon General for the past 44 years.

How much my campaign to eliminate tobacco sales at our local CVS had on the corporation, I cannot say with certainty. Within a week several members of the media contacted executives as CVS to ask about their position on this issue. They indicated that the corporation would be looking into this matter.

In February of 2014, Mr. Larry Merlo announced that CVS Caremark would phase-out tobacco sales at its more than 7,600 drugstores nationwide. He further stated, "Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health."

I am encouraged that CVS has made a commitment to the health and well-being of its customers. Because of their corporate responsibility, lives will be saved. All too often, corporations hide behind the "smoke screen" of profitability. Yet, when an individual holds the mirror in front of them, there is the potential that they will not like what they see. Then, change can take place. As the October deadline for the termination of tobacco sales in CVS approaches, many of the other larger pharmacy chains have not shown the same concern and caring for their customer's welfare.

I urge every smoker to talk with his/her doctor about various methods to stop smoking. Please consider adding your voice to those who hold individuals and corporations accountable for their choices. With the right mirror, we just might make the smoke disappear.

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