CVS customers around the suburbs Wednesday started seeing promotions asking, "Ready to quit?" as part of the retailer's new stop-smoking campaign with the American Lung Association after tobacco products were completely removed from CVS shelves.
While the Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based pharmacy chain led the way to help reduce smoking, other leading health-related retailers remained on the sidelines, including Deerfield-based Walgreens.
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"We have not changed our policy and we do continue to sell tobacco products," said Walgreens spokesman James W. Graham.
In addition, parent company CVS Caremark Corp. renamed itself CVS Health, a change meant to advocate better health.
CVS, the biggest U.S. seller of prescription drugs, aims to redefine itself as a health care provider and its initiative on tobacco was designed to help reduce the almost half-million deaths attributed to smoking each year in the United States.
The company operates 7,700 drugstores, including those in Addison, Bartlett, Bloomingdale, Buffalo Grove, Elgin, Glendale Heights, Lombard, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Schaumburg, South Barrington and Streamwood. It also has 900 walk-in medical clinics and a pharmacy-benefits manager with almost 65 million members.
The tobacco consumer accounts for about $2 billion of CVS' annual revenue, said CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis.
But that doesn't mean the retailer will lose that much in sales. "The tobacco products have been replaced with smoking cessation products and signage about quitting smoking," DeAngelis said.
By eliminating tobacco products from the stores, CVS "can make a difference in the health of all Americans," CVS CEO Larry Merlo said in a statement. "Consumers are increasingly taking control of their own health and, through our 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners, we are helping people on their path to better health."
The Chicago-based American Lung Association was happy with CVS' decision to take the products off the shelf a month before it had originally planned, said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association.
"The American Lung Association has been working to advocate lung health and to have all retail pharmacies remove their smoking products for the last eight years," said Wimmer. "We were very excited when we heard about CVS' announcement in February and to actually see it happen now is an important step for public health. This shows their commitment."
Wimmer said the association continues to work with other retail pharmacies, including Walgreens, but so far no other company has made such a commitment to stop selling cigarettes and other smoking products.
"We believe that if the goal is to truly reduce tobacco use in America, then the most effective thing retail pharmacies can do is address the root causes and help smokers quit," said Walgreens spokesman Graham.
With about 250,000 retail establishments selling tobacco products in America today, retail pharmacies comprise only 4 percent of overall tobacco sales, Graham said.
"Our goal is to help get the U.S. smoking rate, which has leveled off at around 18 percent of the adult population for a decade, moving lower again," Graham said.
Graham said his company offers smoking cessation programs, products and initiatives.
"Walgreens is well positioned and committed to offering consumers alternatives and solutions to help change behavior and quit smoking," Graham said.
In the last decade, CVS has expanded in health care by opening about 800 in-store clinics nationwide with nurses and physician assistants who can diagnose and write prescriptions for minor illnesses.
In an essay published in February in the Journal of the American Medical Association with Steven Schroeder, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center, CVS Health Chief Medical Officer Troyen Brennan said reducing cigarette availability is another step toward taking tobacco use out of the mainstream and making it less socially acceptable.
"The sale of tobacco in a retail pharmacy conflicts with the purpose of the health care services delivered there," Brennan said in today's statement. "Even more important, there is evidence developing that indicates that removing tobacco products from retailers with pharmacies will lead to substantially lower rates of smoking with implications for reducing tobacco-related deaths."
In December, CVS said it would become a partner this year with Dublin, Ohio-based drug distributor Cardinal Health Inc. to be the biggest source of generic medicines in the U.S. CVS acquired Caremark in 2007, creating the biggest mail-order and retail medicine provider in the U.S., after a three-month bidding war with Express Scripts Inc. Caremark at the time was the second-biggest manager of employee prescription-drug benefits.
• Bloomberg News contributed to this report.