CVS Stops Selling Cigarettes: Great PR? Yes. Courageous? Hardly.


The following is inspired thinking from Future Buzz community member Caroline Platt.

Recently the news broke that CVS would discontinue selling cigarettes. I was surprised, like most people and clicked through my CNN alert to read the news with interest. The basics of the announcement are this, as reported on

  • CVS Caremark will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its CVS/pharmacy stores by October 1.
  • The retailer said the move makes CVS/pharmacy the first chain of national pharmacies to take tobacco products off the shelves.
  • “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,” Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, said in a statement. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”
  • CVS Caremark is the largest pharmacy in the United States based on total prescription revenue, according to the company. It operates more than 7,600 CVS/pharmacy stores nationwide in addition to more than 800 MinuteClinics, which are medical clinics within the pharmacy locations.

My first thought was that it was a pretty great PR move, no matter what the motives. So I took notice when one of the most influential PR firms in the world, Edelman, called the decision “courageous.”

Courageous? Really? We’ve known cigarettes kill people for 50 years. The American Lung Association lists the following as some of the “General Facts” regarding smoking:

  • Cigarette smoke contains over 4,800 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. Smoking is directly responsible for approximately 90 percent of lung cancer deaths and approximately 80-90 percent of COPD (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) deaths.
  • About 8.6 million people in the U.S. have at least one serious illness caused by smoking. That means that for every person who dies of a smoking-related disease, there are 20 more people who suffer from at least one serious illness associated with smoking.

CVS’ decision today is a branding one. I think it’s a smart move and a sign that retailers may need to take some risks to stay competitive. It’s interesting and noteworthy and is, rightly, getting a lot attention. But, courageous? I’m not buying it. They still sell plenty of toxic products that are medically proven bad for your health.

The New York Times summed up the announcement this way: “The company’s move was yet another sign of its metamorphosis into becoming more of a health care provider than a largely retail business, with its stores offering more miniclinics and health advice to aid customers visiting its pharmacies.” Now, that makes sense. CVS, like most retailers, is trying to differentiate itself in the age of Amazon. The company wants to be known as a resource for health and (obvi) cigarettes are out of step with that image. That the company also got a lot of attention for their announcement was undoubtedly part of the plan and will help move their brand position forward with their broad national audience.

Forbes contributor, and self-described branding expert, Scott Davis was even more effusive: “…the $2 billion decision to boldly dump tobacco sends CVS’ boldest signal of commitment to the brand and to where it sees its future growth; it’s an unprecedented move and one that is wickedly smart.”

As any PR person can attest, there are occasionally opportunities for organizations to make truly courageous decisions. Very rarely do they make headlines. CVS made the right decision and managed to do it in a way that also got coverage everywhere from CNN to the NYTimes to my LinkedIn feed. That’s not courageous. That’s just great PR.

Update, check out this follow-up  story from USA Today further proving the point of this post.

About the author: Caroline Platt specializes in national and Virginia public relations at The Hodges Partnership. You can connect with her here, or follow the Hodges Partnership on Twitter.

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