02/10/2014 09:35 am ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

CVS' Tobacco Move Follows Pilgrim's Progress

The news that CVS/Caremark will stop selling tobacco products in its stores is a gigantic leap forward in reducing smoking rates and promoting public health that will cost the giant chain more than $2 billion in sales. But it follows by more than 25 years the courageous action by a Nevada pharmacist named John Pilgrim, who was tired of feeling guilty every time he looked behind the register.

So, in 1986 John Pilgrim removed all tobacco products from the shelves of his Boulder City drugstore and destroyed them in a giant bonfire. He invited children in the community to tell their parents about what he was doing, resulting in a line of kids, moms and dads tossing more packs into the fire.

At first, he lost some sales, but the resulting publicity and good will his decision brought made his business so profitable he was able to open a second store.

During this period, my father, Ted Klein, was handling public relations for an unusual new product that for the first time used nicotine to assist patients in stopping smoking. It was called Nicorette, the "nicotine gum," and for many years it was the only prescription drug used for smoking cessation. He found out about John Pilgrim and had an idea to roll out Pilgrim's idea on a national level.

I was working with my father, who was based in New York, out of my office in Washington, D.C., where I created direct mail campaigns for nonprofits and political organizations. We helped John Pilgrim start an organization we called "Pharmacists for Nonsmoking Families" and sent out our first mailing to a list of 20,000 independent pharmacies in the U.S., inviting them to use their stores as an entry point for customers who wanted to stop smoking. We mailed only to independents because we knew that chain druggists had no power to make such a decision on their own.

Not everyone was going to feel comfortable removing profitable items like cigarettes from their shelves, but for those who did we provided a kit to help them plan their own bonfire (yes, the fire department was involved!). For others, we encouraged them to display or hand out smoking cessation information in their stores, and we created a newsletter called "The Smoke Free Pharmacy" to give them up-to-date information about smoking cessation.

The word "Nicorette" was never mentioned in any of this material. It was my father's view of public relations that if you created an environment that was conducive to helping people find answers, you didn't have to hammer them with product promotion.

In 1988, the American Cancer Society included Pharmacists for Nonsmoking Families' efforts as part of the activities included in that year's Great American Smoke Out. One of our members, David Greenfield turned his Woodlawn Pharmacy in Baltimore, M.D. decided to add an extra step to his sale of cigarettes. An AP story reported,

His store is sandwiched between a grocery and a convenience store, but if you buy cigarettes from him you get an American Cancer Society pamphlet as well as a little lecture for the same price.

"I feel I've gotten a couple of dozen people to quit and we feel proud of that," Greenfield says. "I hate selling cigarettes but I guess I wouldn't get to talk to them if I didn't."

In one of our newsletters, John Pilgrim wrote,

Tobacco products are instruments of death that simply do not belong in drug stores -- whose very existence affirms the primacy of life. I believe that any drug store owner whose economic viability rests on the sale of tobacco products should give up his business and choose another field. The practice of pharmacy cannot co-exist with the selling of cigarettes.

CVS deserves enormous credit for its decision to stop selling tobacco products. But this decision was made by a giant corporation with resources, such as their "Minute Clinic," that can help them make up the lost revenue. But let's not forget John Pilgrim and the independent pharmacists who chose on their own to do the right thing to improve the health of their customers and community, putting their principles over profit. How often does that happen?