Phillip Tutor: Selling death, one smoke at a time
Feb 06, 2014 | 3605 views |  0 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CVS stores will stop selling tobacco products by the end of the year. Photo: The Associated Press
CVS stores will stop selling tobacco products by the end of the year. Photo: The Associated Press
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Thirty years ago, I worked in a drugstore not dissimilar to CVS. We stocked our shelves with dangerous stuff.

The worst of it was kept in the back, under lock and key: Demerol, Percocet, Dilaudid, pain killers that could drop a horse. Only the pharmacist could touch it.

But the rest of it was out in the open, displayed as if it were as harmless as a box of Band-Aids.

We stocked so many tobacco products that we could pass for a Kentucky farmer. We kept them behind the cash register along with girlie magazines hidden from teenaged boys. But they were there, in all their glory — cigarettes, cigars, dip and chew. If you could (legally) roll it, smoke it, puff on it, light it or stick it between your cheek and gums, we stocked it and we would sell it to you.

On the other side of the store sat our beer cooler, an impressive sight. Six-packs, 12-packs and singles, regulars and tall boys, we sold them all. It was the mid-1980s, smack-dab in the middle of the wine-cooler craze that allowed brewers to make money selling weak hooch to people who didn’t like beer. So we stocked enough wine coolers to get every college co-ed drunk in three counties.

We didn’t sell wine, but if we could have, we would have, I’m sure.

I don’t remember anyone — the pharmacists, the district managers, the customers — mentioning the irony of a store ostensibly designed to sell health making so much money selling potential death.

Thirty years later, CVS Caremark’s decision to stop selling tobacco products by the end of this year is both mind-boggling and bold. The company, which has stores in Calhoun County, is willingly sacrificing several billion dollars’ worth of revenue because selling products linked to cancer and other serious health problems goes against their existence as a provider of health care.

Halleluiah.

Drugstores aren’t hospitals or doctor’s offices, though they are increasing their health-care services. By definition they are retail outlets, and drugstore chains for decades have sought additional profits by competing against gas stations, groceries and quick-stop shops. Doing so meant selling what consumers want. For many, cigs and booze top that list.

Pharmacies long ago branched out from their core function — selling prescription and over-the-counter medications — but modern science, in the case of cigarettes, has proven them hypocritical. Long-term tobacco use is often deadly; short-term use affects your health, never in a good way.

Free-marketers, “small-L” libertarians and capitalists will have a field day with CVS’s decision, especially if other pharmacy chains — Walgreens and Rite Aid, for instance — refuse to take cigarettes off their shelves. The debate will rage: Who won this quasi-war against tobacco use? Smokers, Big Tobacco or the health nuts?

That argument is irrelevant since taking cigs out of CVS stores will create only a small dip in the chain’s $123 billion in annual sales, according to the New York Times.

The real winners are the health nuts — I’m one of them — who love seeing the ever-growing public opinion against a product that has no redeeming value. Its smoke reeks, its health benefits are non-existent. It’s addictive, and kicking the habit is hard. If you’ve ever seen someone you love die from lung cancer, you’ll never, ever, think about lighting up. You might as well play chicken with a moving train.

Mind you, none of this invites a discussion about legality. Adults can smoke, dip or chew to their heart’s delight. It’s not intoxicating, so police don’t care if you dip-and-drive. The “small-L” libertarian in me equates this to similar discussions about alcohol (which is legal, and which I occasionally enjoy) and marijuana (which should be legal). It’s comical how governments and industry lobbyists, over time, have chosen which substances are legal (and heavily taxed) and which are not.

In other words, if you want to drastically increase your chances of getting cancer, go ahead. If you want to drink to excess and risk alcoholism, that’s your choice. If you want to get mellow on weed, do it. It’ll just cost you, one way or the other.

That’s not CVS’s fight, of course.

Instead, it’s joined the front line of the smoldering battle against tobacco. CVS is surrendering that lucrative market to those who don’t care that by selling cigarettes, they’re selling death. All hail the mighty profit.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.
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