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CVS and cigarettes: a good first step

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 6, 2014 09:38 AM

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Of course I was psyched to hear that as of October 1, CVS won't be selling tobacco products anymore. After all, every year 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. But when I read the message from the CEO on their website, it annoyed me. It said: "The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose--helping people on their path to health."

If that's their purpose, they've got a whole lot more work to do.

Don't get me wrong. This is fantastic news. Anything we do that makes it harder for people to get cigarettes is great--and when a chain as big as CVS sets an example like this, well, there's always a chance that others will follow.'s a stretch for CVS to say that their products help people on the path to better health.

I was in CVS the other day. I had a list of random things I needed to buy that afternoon, and one of them was lemon juice. Hey, I thought, maybe they have that here. I spent a long time looking at all of their food products, because given that they sold vinegar, garlic powder (and various other spices) as well as assorted condiments, I kept thinking that the lemon juice had to be there somewhere. It wasn't--but there were plenty of processed foods, chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, sugary cereals and other foods I beg my patients not to eat. And then there were two aisles full of Valentine's Day candy, not to mention all the candy by the register...

According to the Surgeon General, 300, 000 people die every year because of obesity--and many more suffer from complications such as diabetes or heart disease. I know, an occasional can of soda or bag of chips isn't going to make you fat or kill you. But honestly, the vast majority of the food and snacks in CVS was unhealthy. Not what you'd expect if your purpose were to make people healthy. 

There are plenty of other questionable products at CVS, too, such as cold medicines for young children (even though the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages their use, as they aren't effective and can be dangerous), dietary supplements (which are unregulated and of unclear benefit at best) or diet pills. It's fine, nobody forces anybody to buy this stuff, and it's not as bad as cigarettes, but again...not so much leading the path to better health.

Maybe this is just a starting point for CVS. Maybe, as part of their campaign to promote wellness, they aren't just going to have Minute Clinics and take tobacco out of their stores, but also going to make gradual changes so that all (or at least the majority) of their products and messaging really do help customers lead healthier lives. That would be awesome

But if they are stopping here, let's not call it more than it is. We don't have to call it a marketing gimmick (even though it may be one), but let's not say that it's aligning with the "purpose" of CVS.

Let's just call it what it is: a really good idea.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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