CVS Quits - good for business and student health

Going cold turkey to boost image should help UBreathe Free

On February 9, 2014

UB smokers will have a tougher time getting cigarettes starting Oct. 1, due to a CVS Pharmacy decision that has already bolstered the company's image.

In an announcement Wednesday, CVS President and CEO Larry Merlo said the company's over 7,600 stores will no longer sell tobacco products starting in October. It will cost the company approximately $2 billion, according to CVS' estimates.

Even for a company that prides itself on a healthy image, the decision may (initially) come as a shock - $2 billion is nothing to scoff at, even compared to the over $123 billion CVS Caremark reports making in revenue in 2012.

That is, until you consider the positive PR this will, and already has, generated for the corporation surely seeking to gain an edge in such a competitive market niche.

Corporate social responsibility, a part of a business model for companies looking to portray a friendly, ethical face to the public while gaining a strategic edge over competitors, is a growing trend. This decision is a prime example.

Further, smoking is a dying trend. There has been a precipitous fall in students and adults who smoke regularly, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) study. CVS' decision could easily be seen as just getting ahead of the curve and improving its good image along the way.

Couple this with CVS' far-from-coincidental announcement of a new smoking cessation program, which will "help offset the estimated loss of 17 cents in earnings per share of stock annually," and you have a winning combination.

But while cynicism comes quickly, appreciating the real impact of this move both nationally and at UB takes a bit more consideration.

Though the CDC report cites a dropping trend, the numbers remain staggering. In 2011, over 18 percent of high school students and nearly 20 percent of adults reported smoking within the last 30 days. These numbers are far from the goals of 16 and 12 percent the center has set for those demographics in 2020.

At UB, the National College Health Assessment for 2013 reported over 10 percent of students had smoked cigarettes within the last 30 days.

Being the only retailer of tobacco products on campus, the decision will doubtlessly make it more difficult for students, particularly those without cars, to get tobacco. UBreathe Free, given its inefficacy thus far, could use all the help it can get.

Though the final results will take some time to gauge, the move will presumably cut some of the tobacco use on campus and will certainly provide a further barrier to smoking.

Perhaps this business decision can succeed where UB policy has failed - reducing smoking.

Businesses will take actions for good business reasons, to generate buzz and gain an edge on the competition - this is the reality of capitalism. But failing to see the genuinely positive impact these choices and campaigns may have is a level of skepticism we need not embrace.

The decision sets a precedent and will hopefully cut the presence of products that negatively impact so many lives - of smokers and those they smoke around.

If the announcement by CVS leads to other companies doing the same, and a further reduction in cigarette and tobacco use, then perhaps the company deserves the image it's seeking to promote and a minor boost in stock prices. That will be incentive for others to follow suit.



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