The way that CVS was praised today you would think they had announced a company-funded initiative guaranteeing the end of homelessness, or maybe something slightly smaller and more achievable like paying their employees a living wage. What else could they possibly have done to deserve adoring and publicly trumpeted words from President Obama like, “I congratulate–and thank–the CEO of CVS Caremark, Larry Merlo, the board of directors, and all who helped make a choice that will have a profoundly positive impact on the health of our country”? What did CVS do to earn the clamoring acclaim of public welfare advocates and progressive pundits from coast to coast?
They announced that they would stop selling cigarettes in their stores by October.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is a noble deed, or–by corporate standards–something approaching it, I guess. Smoking is bad, we all know it’s bad, and it’s better if fewer people have access to cigarettes, especially in the densely populated urban areas in which CVS stores are typically found. In my experience, cigarette prices at chains like CVS and Walgreens are typically lower than they are at the alternatives (liquor stores, mom and pop grocers) found in these neighborhoods. Higher prices and reduced availability means fewer people will seek them out because…supply and demand, or something. No, really, it is proven fact that higher cigarette prices result in fewer smokers. So, assuming CVS’ move results in less availability, higher prices, and some kind of snowball effect in which their competitors follow along, basically wiping cigarettes out of the urban landscape, this is a really great thing.
But the praise is aggravating me.
In our current political and social situation where companies are suing to opt out of providing health insurance and–especially–birth control to their employees; when there is a permanent lower class imprisoned by squashed opportunity and low wages like those paid at CVS stores; when corporate money is influencing elections and laws that directly impact all of our lives, well, I guess I just don’t see any reason to celebrate a $132 billion dollar company finally deciding to the do the right thing on smoking almost 20 years after R.J. Reynolds was shamed and litigated into retiring Joe Camel.
Smoking rates currently hover at 18%—the lowest they’ve ever been. Since 1997, the year leading up to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, smoking rates in the United States have dropped 7%. That’s huge. And it’s still happening: That 7% reflects a 1% drop in the last year alone. So, in other words, we’ve known for a fact as a nation that smoking kills since 1964–the year after CVS was founded–and CVS hasn’t done a thing to prevent, reduce, or discourage smoking until now. And smoking rates have dropped considerably anyway. Why again must we praise these guys?
The $2 billion in cigarette revenue CVS thinks it will lose would be money better used towards absorbing the fines they place on their workers for eating too much of the very same food sold on CVS shelves. It would be better used towards paying their now minimum wage employees a dignified hourly rate. CVS could pour that money into poor communities so isolated from healthy food options they are called “food deserts.” The tobacco companies won’t even miss that $2 billion, and the behemoth CVS Caremark corporation will apparently just shrug it off. The shareholders will deal. But there is meaningful change that money could buy.