CVS decision to stop cigarette sales should set example in other realms

REUTERS/Eric Thayer
CVS will stop selling tobacco products by October — without a government mandate.

This may seem a little off-topic for Earth Journal, but please bear with me as I express elation over the CVS pharmacy chain’s decision to stop selling cigarettes.

It’s a move that gives me renewed hope for progress on other issues at the intersection of environmental stewardship and public health, for two reasons.

First, consider the social progress marked by this commercial milestone —the great distance we’ve come, over barely two generations, in drastically reducing pollution from an activity once regarded as trivial, a matter of personal taste and preference, even very nearly a constitutional right thanks to the pleadings of a particularly cynical, truculent and wealthy tobacco industry.

Second, there is the example set by CVS in changing its business practices without any government requirement that it do so, putting the long-term interests of both its shareholders and the wider public ahead of short-term gain, because it faced up to the fundamental inconsistency in being both a health-centered company and a nicotine peddler.

On that point I will confess to an initial, reflexive skepticism about the altruism behind CVS’ move, because examples of corporate insincerity on tobacco matters have been so rife for so long.

For one example, recalled here with fondness: A moment in the early 1990s when Star Tribune publisher Roger Parkinson, sometimes possessed of a gift for self-deprecating humor, announces to a meeting of company managers that “national tobacco advertising has declined to the point where we will soon be able to stand on principle and ban it altogether.”

A move that costs real money

But make no mistake about CVS; it will be leaving real money on the counter — some $2 billion a year, according to the Wall Street Journal — when tobacco sales stop in October.

That tobacco smoke could be thought of as air pollution was something of an epiphany to me on my first visit to Minnesota, in 1980, when I stepped off a plane and encountered airport signs enforcing the groundbreaking Clean Indoor Air Act, then 5 years old.

And the enlightenment would’ve been most unwelcome had I not been happily smoking on board throughout the three-hour flight from LaGuardia. You could do that then in America, smoke on airliners, and also in offices, restaurants, buses, grocery stores, government offices and elevators.

Even hospitals provided smoking lounges at convenient intervals; in 1982, as I sat up with my father, who was dying of lung cancer in Indiana after a lifelong love affair with Camel straights, I had only to walk to the end of the hall to pound down a Pall Mall.

Though it’s strange to consider now, it was the nonsmokers who were considered weird and selfish in those days.

In 1977 I interviewed for a job at the New York Times, and the process involved working five evening shifts with the national desk copy editors. I settled in, packed some latakia into my pipe and asked if I might have an ashtray. The desk chief, who alternated between pipe and cigar, advised me to knock the ashes out on the linoleum floor like everybody else.

Down at the end of the desk were two old guys, seated together for reasons of seniority, and they despised smoke only slightly more fervently than they detested each other.

One protected his personal breathing space with a rotating tabletop fan he had brought from home. The other protected himself from the fan’s chilling breeze by wearing a sweater vest, corduroy jacket, woolen scarf and fingerless mittens throughout his workday, sometimes adding a watch cap.

That’s just the way it was then, and for really quite a long time after. After moving to Minnesota I smoked happily at work and nearly everywhere else until kicking the habit sometime in the latter 1980s (I should remember the date, but it was a long struggle with many false starts and relapses).

But change finally came, driven less by the expanding science of secondhand smoke or rising social sensitivity than by the shrinking opportunity to light up in any indoor space beyond your home or car.

Smoke clears, sky doesn’t fall

And the sky has not fallen. People have not stopped going to restaurants, then bars, because they can’t indulge (and 18 percent of Americans still indulge). The southeastern U.S. has seen its  tobacco economy contract and has escaped catastrophe.

Sometimes we visit Sallie’s mom outside Winston-Salem, N.C., where R.J. Reynolds was king for so long you might think the city was named for two of its brands rather than the other way around. Downtown tobacco warehouses and cigarette factories have been turned into residential and retail venues; picturesque curing barns across the Carolina countryside are said to be in high demand for conversion to roadside boutiques and galleries.

So it seems to me that if we can decide as a society that people have a right to clean air indoors, at the cost of antagonizing what was once nearly half the adult population, we can continue to do what’s necessary to keep cleaning up the air outdoors, and the water, too. We can continue to defend the right to live near green space and to vacation in wild places against the pressures of private development.

And though too many environmentalists talk blithely about Americans’ “addiction” to oil, and to ever-increasing amounts of electricity, anyone who has overcome a genuine dependence on nicotine, or something worse, can see a certain fallacy there.

How many Americans give two hoots whether their cars are powered by oil’s alternatives — biofuels, electric batteries or hydrogen— so long as the supply is reliable?  None that I know. Moreover, it would seem that many Americans  — especially young Americans — are also easing up on their so-called addiction to driving, when alternatives are available.

As for electricity, the trend lines in demand growth are flattening to a point that utilities are having to reconsider their basic business models, and not because we’re giving up big-screen TVs and second refrigerators.

It’s because of conservation and efficiency gains undertaken by power producers, utilities and manufacturers that are all but invisible to the residential ratepayer. These efforts have barely scratched the surface of what’s clearly possible.

Which brings me back to CVS and its willingness to do the right thing, for the right business and social reasons, without a government mandate and at considerable short-term cost to its bottom line. What a fine example for other companies to learn from and to follow.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Eric Sannerud on 02/06/2014 - 09:58 am.

    Thank you

    I loved this piece. Thank you Ron. Thank you for reminding us all that changes that seem impossible can become reality. If we could put out cigarettes we have a shot at stopping smokestacks.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/07/2014 - 09:18 am.

    Good for CVS

    Your move, Walgreens. You too, Walmart.

  3. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 02/06/2014 - 11:25 am.

    The ideal final step

    would be to ban cigarettes the way DDT was banned. If cigarettes are so toxic, they don’t belong on the marketplace.

  4. Submitted by Lance Groth on 02/06/2014 - 01:41 pm.

    Well said

    What a wonderfully optimistic take on things, and that’s another reason I like Earth Journal. For whatever reason, grim Nordic fatalism perhaps, I tend to focus on the darker side of the many problems confronting us, but Ron has a more positive take on things, always looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and that is refreshing.

  5. Submitted by John Reinan on 02/06/2014 - 03:20 pm.

    Al Stemsrud in Fergus Falls was way ahead on this

    My dear friend, the late Al Stemsrud, ran Stem & Em Drug in my hometown of Fergus Falls. He stopped selling tobacco sometime in the ’60s. That seemed very odd in those days. When I asked him about it, he said, “I just thought it seemed strange to be selling all these things to make people healthier, and then sell them something that makes them sick.” 50 years ahead of his time.

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