Did CVS's tobacco ban really cut smoking?

In the last year, people who had previously purchased tobacco at CVS either smoked less or quit smoking because of the company’s decision to ban selling tobacco in its stores, the company suggests. 

Mike Segar/Files/Reuters
CVS Health Corp celebrated the one-year anniversary of its tobacco ban by releasing a study on Thursday conducted by the CVS Health Research Institute it says shows a reduction in cigarette sales.

A year after cutting tobacco sales, pharmacy chain CVS says the move has resulted in a national reduction in cigarette purchases over the last year.

A study conducted by the company's own CVS Health Research Institute shows a one percent drop in cigarette pack sales in the 13 states that have a CVS pharmacy marketshare of 15 percent or more compared to states with no CVS stores.

The study evaluated cigarette-pack purchases at drug stores, grocery stores, big-box retailers, dollar stores, convenience stores, and gas stations in the eight months after CVS stopped selling tobacco products. 

Over the eight-month period, the average person in these states purchased five fewer cigarette packs and, in total, approximately 95 million fewer packs were sold, according to the study.  

The research also found a four percent increase in nicotine patch purchases in those states where CVS has 15 percent or greater marketshare in the period immediately following the end of tobacco sales, which the company says shows there was also "a positive effect on attempts to quit smoking."

“It looks like one way to get people to smoke less is to stop selling cigarettes,” Steven Schroeder, who heads the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California at San Francisco told Bloomberg. “It is a modest impact but it is favorable.”

However, some critics are questioning CVS’s claims about the study.

"CVS only sold a very small percentage of the nation's cigarettes to start with, and financial analysts have said the impact of CVS's move wouldn't have a major impact on smoking rates," Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research told USA Today. "But the bold claim that its decision to stop selling cigarettes actually got a significant number of smokers to just buy the mostly ineffective nicotine patches and quit smoking, only illustrates how little the company knows about the difficulty of quitting."

The smoking rate has also been falling for decades without the company's intervention, falling about one percent from 2013 to 2014, thanks to smoking bans, heavy taxes, advertising, and cigarette alternatives.

CVS acknowledges the pre-existing interest in quitting smoking, but a company spokesperson argues that, in some cases, CVS's actions may have played a role in turning that desire into a reality.

“We know that more than two-thirds of smokers want to quit – and that half of smokers try to quit each year," said Dr. Troyen Brennan, chief medical officer of CVS Health in a news release. "We also know that cigarette purchases are often spontaneous. And so we reasoned that removing a convenient location to buy cigarettes could decrease overall tobacco use."

CVS stopped selling tobacco products last September citing incompatibility with its health-focused mission. Other retailers haven’t followed CVS’s decision to end tobacco sales, according to Bloomberg.

There are around 42 million adult smokers in the US and smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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