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Smokes no longer belong on our shelves: US pharmacy giant

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Giant US pharmacy chain CVS has delivered a blow to the tobacco industry, announcing it will phase out the sale of cigarettes and all other tobacco-related products in its stores by October as part of a bid to reposition itself as more of the health care provider.

It is estimated the decision will cost the company around $US 2 billion a year, but CVS Caremark Chief Executive Officer Larry Merlo said the move would give the chain a competitive edge in its efforts to forge alliances with hospitals, insurers and physician groups.

“Cigarettes have no place in an environment where health care is being delivered,” Mr Merlo told the Wall Street Journal. “This is the right decision at the right time as we evolve from a drugstore into a health care company.”

CVS, which operates 7600 stores across the US, aims to develop its in-store clinics as a convenient alternative for patients who might otherwise face long waits to see a doctor – a strategy similar to that being pursued by a number of rival pharmacy chains as they attempt to reposition themselves amid a downturn in prescription medicine sales.

CVS’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Troyen Brennan told the Wall Street Journal that one of the first questions the company was asked when it approached medical groups about forming partnerships was why it continued to sell tobacco products.

“They’re a little bit suspicious of us because we sell cigarettes,” Dr Brennan said. “This move gives us a competitive advantage because it shows our commitment to health care.”

Anti-smoking campaigners have welcomed the move, which they hope will increase pressure on CVS’s rivals, such as Walgreen and Rite Aid, to follow suit.

“It just doesn’t make sense, if you exist to promote health, and you sell one of the major causes of death in the US,” American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Dr Otis Brawley said.

Smoking rates in the US are in decline, with just 18.1 per cent of adults smoking in 2012, but tobacco remains the major cause of preventable disease and death, with the US Surgeon General linking smoking to 480,000 deaths a year.

Disturbingly, smoking rates remain stubbornly high among America’s poor and less educated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that almost 28 per cent of Americans living below the poverty line smoked, as did 20 per cent of those with a disability and 42 per cent of adults with graduate education development certificates.

Although some US states have substantial anti-smoking and tobacco control measures, it is an area of policy that has been relatively neglected at the federal level.

For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has launched a $US115 million nationwide, year-long advertising campaign against teen smoking, and last year the Obama Administration proposed doubling the federal excise on cigarettes.