CVS stops selling cigarettes: A look at some unintended consequences

Like most of the other 81% of American adults who don’t smoke, I was delighted to hear that CVS Pharmacy was taking the bold step of no longer selling tobacco products at its stores. However, on second thought, it occurred to me that this may not be a slam dunk positive story.

Eliminating tobacco products from its shelves will definitely mean a major financial hit for CVS, estimated to be approximately $2 billion per year. It will also be a hit to tobacco consumers. Nationally 7,600 outlets for tobacco products will be eliminated. The total supply of tobacco products may not be reduced, but access to them will be constricted.

What does this mean to the smokers of America? It means that it will be marginally more difficult for them to get their smokes. To the extent that the law of supply and demand includes access to the product, the price of tobacco products may increase.

Where will the smokers, who have been adding $2 billion per year to CVS’s coffers, go to get their fix? It is possible that some will rethink their addiction to cigarettes and may take (or re-take) the difficult road towards cessation. Others will find that it’s easy to go to another nearby drugstore. Others will just add cigarettes to their shopping lists when they go to the grocery store. Some may no longer pay for their gasoline at the pump; instead they will go inside to the quick shop and purchase cigarettes along with gasoline.

Dirt-Cheap-Paducah-aAnother alternative is that they will go to outlets like “Dirt Cheap,” where they can get cigarettes at reduced prices along with discounted liquor. I certainly do not think that there is societal benefit to making companies like “Dirt Cheap” more profitable. However, if we were to in anyway crack down on such franchises (such as refusing to give them necessary permits, etc.), we would be on the doorstep of bringing back Prohibition, this time to include tobacco products as well as alcohol.

So congratulations to CVS, not only for stepping forward to promote better health, but also for the willingness to take a major financial hit to the tune of $2 billion per year. It is certainly doing its part in addressing what is still one of America’s greatest public health problems. But left still is consideration of what might happen next to the smokers.

Cigarettes should be part of our national discussion on regulating drugs. So should alcohol, as well as marijuana, other street drugs, as well as legal pharmaceutical drugs. Maybe cigarettes should be more restricted, while still being legal. They might be a suitable drug for a physician to prescribe for anxiety or irritability. Like other pharmaceuticals, the permit would have to be periodically renewed. The same might be true for alcohol and marijuana. Whatever happens, we owe considerable thanks to CVS for taking a firm moral stand, while absorbing a major financial hit. Perhaps the greatest gift CVS gives us is another channel in which to have the important discussion of what substances should and what should not be legal in the United States.