She’s been instrumental in CVS taking a stand against tobacco

Eileen Howard Boone is both a mother of six and an executive at CVS Health. Her work is indicative of how many businesses are putting more emphasis on philanthropy.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Eileen Howard Boone, shown here at CVS headquarters in Woonsocket, R.I., helps align the company’s profitmaking and philanthropic goals.

For Eileen Howard Boone, the social responsibility part of corporate leadership started as a side job and blossomed into an entire career.

As an executive, she was running investor relations and communications for Office Depot in Florida when she was asked to manage the retailer’s donations program. At first, that entailed writing checks to various charities, but by 2001, she had helped create the company’s widely lauded National Backpack Program, which has donated school supplies to millions of underprivileged students.

“It was important for me to see the art of taking an asset and building it into something that was a wonderful opportunity not just for the kids, but for us and for the partners we were working with,” she says.

The backpack program drew the attention of CVS, and in 2004 the pharmacy retailer recruited Ms. Howard Boone to manage its community relations. In the 12 years since, she’s become the embodiment of the alignment between the company’s profitmaking and philanthropic goals.

That kind of alignment has increasingly become a priority for businesses, as more customers expect socially responsible practices. In the case of CVS, the company has kept an eye toward its stockholders and its approximately $153 billion in annual sales, while making Howard Boone the face of its charitable efforts. She helps organize a huge company golf classic every year and served as grand marshal for the 2008 Special Olympics in Rhode Island. “We really subscribe to doing well by doing good,” she says in an interview at CVS Health headquarters in Woonsocket, R.I.

In recent years, the most fully realized example of this approach for CVS has been on the antismoking front. Earlier this year, the pharmacy chain launched “Be the First,” a $50 million joint venture with a number of other organizations aimed at driving down rates of smoking and tobacco use. The initiative follows the company’s decision to remove tobacco products from its shelves in 2014.

Howard Boone was instrumental in that decision, meeting with shareholders and bringing them on board. And in the run-up to Be the First’s launch, she traveled around the United States on a listening tour, gathering insights from experts and community health professionals.

The success of the project is important to her, both professionally and personally. She lost an aunt to lung cancer when she was younger, and her children are clustered around the ages when many people begin using tobacco. The peak time for kids first trying a cigarette is when they’re in the sixth or seventh grades, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“Eileen is fantastic,” says Aria Finger, who is part of an advisory group for Be the First and is chief executive officer of the youth-focused nonprofit “As a mom in business, [there’s a sense that] you are not supposed to talk about your kids. She immediately brings up her kids, what her 10-year-old is doing to fight the tobacco lobby. Coming from a place where we’re trying to encourage young people, it’s an asset to be a mom in this space.”

CVS is partnering with, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the National Urban League, and others as part of Be the First. The company has laid out a number of ambitious goals to meet within the next five years, including a 10 percent decline in new youth smokers.

$2 billion in lost sales

Be the First is a natural outgrowth of CVS’s evolution in recent years from an all-purpose corner drugstore to a more health-focused brand. But financially, it was rough at first. Although the decision to stop selling tobacco products made huge news and prompted an outpouring of goodwill toward the company, it came at the cost of about $2 billion in lost sales the following fiscal year.

The long financial view makes more sense. Smoking rates in the US have been on the decline since the mid-20th century. In 2014, almost 17 percent of adults smoked cigarettes, compared with about 42 percent in 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 16 percent of students smoke cigarettes, less than half the 35 percent peak seen in 1999.

But even at the current low (and falling) rates, tobacco use is an enormous financial burden on the health-care system of which CVS now considers itself a part. The CDC says 480,000 Americans die from tobacco-related illnesses each year, and treating them costs the nation about $300 billion annually.

Still, shareholders took some convincing. “$2 billion isn’t something where you go, ‘Whew, OK,’ ” Howard Boone says, pitching her voice up and out in a vocal shrug. “But it helped pave the way with better alliances with our partners and providers.”

And it lent CVS more credibility as a health-care company. “It’s a business function,” she continues. “We’re trying to support our long-term growth, and when we’re doing it in a socially responsible way, it really benefits the company and stakeholders.”

A mother of six, Howard Boone exudes a calm yet high energy level born out of juggling a wide range of personalities and interests among her children. “I have an artist. I have two video-game kids. I have athletes,” she says of her blended family. “My 6-year-old is truly the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life,” she says. “Learning what each kid likes and how to connect with that takes a bit of tweaking.”

Catering to the interests of both a profit-minded company and charitable organizations takes a similar flexibility.

“A lot of times mission-based nonprofits, their goals are a little ...” Howard Boone hesitates. “They’re not specific, whereas companies and corporations are very clear about where they want to go,” she says. “You have really good people focusing on the mission, but not so much on what we have to do to make sure everyone is on board. That’s not a lack of consideration or understanding. It’s just making sure that they are building out a program in an effective way.”

A balance in philosophies

Balancing those different philosophies is an essential skill as the business world works more and more intimately with philanthropic groups. But the practice is far from universally beloved.

Critics argue that the power balance in partnerships between nonprofits and corporations can skew too heavily toward the companies’ interests. But on the positive side, the approach matches charitable causes to firms that can throw financial power and related expertise at them.

“The effort is migrating toward activities that draw more directly on the special capabilities of the business itself,” Dutch Leonard, a professor of public management at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., says in an email. “For example, in its regular business IBM consultants develop IT solutions for clients; one of its major ‘charitable’ activities is to give employees paid time off to work with nonprofits to develop IT solutions for them.”

Done well, such activities can yield benefits all around. Howard Boone says she has learned “a ton” from Be the First’s charity partners. For instance, smoking rates go up as income and education levels go down, and vital understanding as to how to reach these underserved groups came from the Urban League.

One group in particular stood out. “If you look at at-risk populations where the biggest issues are, the surprising one there was pregnant women,” Howard Boone says. CVS has allocated some of its Be the First budget to incentives and stress-relief programs to help low-income pregnant women quit.

The company’s initial investment, however, has been on the youth front, where even as smoking rates go down, use of alternatives such as e-cigarettes nearly tripled from 2013 to 2014. Some research suggests e-cigarettes can be a helpful middle step for longtime smokers trying to quit, but the fast pace of youth adoption is worrying for public health officials.

When it comes to getting the message across to that generation, even a mother of six can always learn a thing or two. “I went to Aria [at], and I was all excited: I said, ‘Why don’t we get kids to take a pledge to be tobacco-free,’ ” Howard Boone says. “She’s like, ‘Um, that’s kind of lame,’ and came up with some actually cool things for us to do instead.”

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups encouraging business development or supporting good health:

Develop Africa is committed to developing Africa’s resources through education, training, and other support. Take action: Help expand a small business.

Kenya Association for Maternal & Neonatal Health aims to improve the quality of life for vulnerable members of Kenyan society. Take action: Become a fundraising volunteer.

Global Citizens Network promotes peace, justice, and respect through cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. Take action: Construct a village clinic for women’s health and infant care in Mexico.

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