CVS Health, the largest drugstore retailer in the U.S., launched “Be the First,” a $50 million, five-year effort to help curb tobacco use, which it notes is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the U.S.
"Be the First" is aimed at young people, including elementary school-age kids, because youth tobacco use is rising, with nearly a quarter of high schoolers using tobacco products of some kind, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The initiative includes comprehensive education, advocacy, tobacco control and healthy behavior programming in partnership with other organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the National Urban League, that work on tobacco use cessation and prevention.
When it announced in early 2014 that it would cease sales of tobacco, the drugstore chain knew it was leaving behind $2 billion in business, but CVS president and CEO Larry Merlo said at the time that "the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."
Indeed, CVS is in the midst of a hard pivot to become more of an all-around provider of healthcare and medical services in addition to its traditional pharmacy and health and beauty retail business. The chain counts among its executive ranks a physician with a public health degree, Chief Medical Officer Troyen A. Brennan, M.D., M.P.H.
"We are at a critical moment in our nation's efforts to end the epidemic of tobacco use that continues to kill more people than any other preventable cause of death, and threatens the health and well-being of our next generation," Brennan said in a statement. "Ensuring our youth stay tobacco-free requires increased education and awareness of healthy behaviors. We're partnering with experts across the public health community who have established best practices to help prevent tobacco use. And, by establishing more public-private partnerships to implement these strategies more aggressively, we can help increase the number of people leading tobacco-free lives and move us one step closer to delivering the first tobacco-free generation.”
There’s no doubt that this initiative is in keeping with CVS's health focus. But the move could also have the benefit of eating into its rivals’ bottom line. Although CVS has sought to encourage other drugstore retailers to follow in its footsteps by ending tobacco sales, none has so far, despite their own forays into medical services.
CVS last month reported Q4 earnings of $1.5 billion or $1.34 per share, meeting expectations from the street. The retailer also reported Q4 revenue of $41.15 billion, beating expectations of $41.01 billion. Retail sales rose 12.5% to $19.9 billion, about half of which stemmed from its acquisition last year of drug distribution company Omnicare.