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A customer signs up for a flu shot at a MinuteClinic inside a CVS store, part of the chain’s effort to reposition itself as a health care provider. Ending tobacco sales is consistent with that philosophy.

Trend that’s worth continuing

CVS made public health history last week when it announced it will stop selling cigarettes and all tobacco products in its 7,600 stores across the nation. The shift will take effect Oct. 1.

For years, professional associations such as the American Pharmacists Association, American Medical Association and American Public Health Association have been urging chain pharmacies to stop carrying tobacco products. In 2007, Target became the first national retailer to heed the call.

From a public health perspective, this is the right move. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 450,000 deaths each year are related to smoking, including from second-hand exposure to cigarette smoke. On average, smokers live 10 years fewer than non-smokers.

Until now, others in the retail market have been reluctant to follow suit. Companies have seen little incentive to stop tobacco sales, and for good financial reason. CVS predicts a loss of $2 billion in annual sales.

“Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health,” Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, said in a written statement. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”

While maximizing revenue with tobacco sales is good for the bottom line, CVS is finding other avenues to profits by diversifying into the more lucrative health care services market. The company has not been secretive about its intention– to establish its presence as a health care provider. According to its website, CVS now has 800 MinuteClinics in stores in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

The desire to win a good corporate citizenship badge has likely played an important role in this bold move. Businesses are finding themselves operating in increasingly transparent environments as their constituents are informed of (both good and bad) corporate decisions in a near-instantaneous fashion.

The influence of Internet and social media are giving consumers unprecedented power to shape business practices and force corporations to be ever more responsive to the social context of their environment and the collective voices of their consumer base.

Consider lending your voice to the cause by congratulating your CVS manager and by urging other pharmacies to stop selling tobacco products.

Özlem H. Ersin (top) is assistant department chair in pharmaceutical sciences and Mary Kiersma is director of assessment for the Manchester University College of Pharmacy. They wrote this for The Journal Gazette.