A boost for anti-smoking message
It’s getting difficult to remember, but smoking was once a socially accepted activity.
People smoked in their homes, their offices and their cars. They smoked in restaurants and stores and parks. Parents thought nothing of smoking in front of their children, and many high schools had a designated smoking section.
These days, smoking is barred in most public spaces, government buildings and businesses. I’m sure there are people who still smoke in their homes and cars, but I’m not acquainted with any. Even my smoker friends — almost all of whom have quit — never smoked inside. The smell of secondhand smoke has become so rare that it tends to startle me.
“It’s getting so that you can’t smoke in the air,” a friend of mine likes to observe.
The war on smoking has been such a huge success that it can be easy to forget that it’s still being waged.
But it is, and on Wednesday anti-smoking groups and activists notched another big victory when CVS/Caremark, the largest drugstore chain in America, announced it would stop selling tobacco products by October.
From a public health standpoint, this is a big deal, mainly because of the message it sends.
Whether CVS/Caremark’s decision to drop tobacco products from its 7,600 stores will actually get people to quit smoking remains to be seen — I suspect the most hardened and committed smokers will simply go elsewhere. But it helps reinforce the message that smoking is a dirty, unhealthy and undesirable habit. And this message, combined with ongoing public health campaigns and high taxes on cigarettes, has been quite effective: In 1965, 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked. Today, just 18 percent do.
Even so, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 440,000 people each year. I know people who have died as a result of smoking and I’m sure many of you do, too. I often wonder how much longer my grandmother, who died when I was 4, might have lived had she not smoked heavily her entire adult life.
The Capital Region Tobacco-Free Coalition has been calling on pharmacies to stop selling cigarettes for some time, and Judy Rightmyer, the organization’s director, cheered CVS/Caremark’s decision. She said that it’s “incongruous” for a store that promotes itself as a place where people can tend to their health care needs to sell cigarettes alongside smoking cessation devices such as the nicotine patch.
Rightmyer said she expects CVS/Caremark’s decision to bring new momentum to the effort to get cigarettes out of pharmacies and stores that contain pharmacies, and noted that Albany County Legislator Tim Nichols has proposed legislation that would ban the sale of cigarettes at pharmacies in Albany County. Though 77 towns and cities in Massachusetts have barred the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, no municipality in New York has taken the step.
“We need to denormalize smoking and provide resources that can help people quit,” Rightmyer said.
There’s already been great success on that front, but it hasn’t been universal. In particular, communities with large numbers of low-income residents generally have higher smoking rates; in Schenectady, the smoking rate is high — about 37 percent, according to a health survey of city residents released last fall.
Because corporations seldom do things out of the goodness of their hearts, I wondered what might be driving CVS/Caremark’s decision.
According to news reports, the company is in the process of becoming more of a health care provider than a retail business, and its stores are hosting an increasing number of mini-clinics and seeking to provide customers with health advice. “We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting,” said Larry J. Merlo, CVS/Caremark’s CEO.
My guess is that other pharmacies are going to follow CVS/Caremark’s lead and stop selling tobacco, and that a growing number of municipalities will consider banning such sales.
And someday, not too far in the future, we’ll probably marvel at the fact that cigarettes were ever sold in pharmacies. It will probably seem as strange as, I don’t know, smoking in your office or at a restaurant or on an airplane. People don’t do these things anymore, and we’re all better for it. And we’ll all be better off when pharmacies no longer sell cigarettes, too.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.