The decision by CVS/Caremark to remove tobacco products from its shelves is a welcome move on the part of the national drugstore chain and a potentially significant step in the continuing effort to discourage the use of a known health hazard.
Smoking is legal, and probably will remain so. It also is one of the causes of lung cancer, respiratory ailments and other diseases, making it the nation's leading cause of preventable death. Anti-smoking initiatives are laudable not because they marginalize smokers as "second-class citizens," but because they are aimed at keeping people healthy.
CVS says it will have tobacco products off its shelves by October, a move that it estimates will cost about $2 billion in lost revenues. That's no small price to pay, but the chain acknowledges the fact that continuing to profit from the sales of a known carcinogenic substance is contradictory to its health care efforts.
Fifty years ago, the Surgeon General sounded the first warning that smoking was hazardous to health. That marked the first governmental acknowledgment of a growing body of medical and scientific research in an era when smoking was popularized as not only fashionable but, in some instances, a healthy practice.
In 1964, about 40 percent of Americans smoked. They did so in public places, including theaters and grocery stores, athletic arenas and college classrooms. Concerns about the hazards of secondhand smoke were unheard of, and non-smokers were expected to simply cope with inhaling tobacco fumes. Smoking was advertised and glamorized in print media and on television.
Today, smoking is banned in most public places. Advertising of tobacco products is limited. Cigarette packaging bears graphic warnings about the dangers of smoking. The price of tobacco products has risen sharply.
Those efforts have all taken a toll on smoking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 19 percent of the adult population smoked in 2011, which represents a substantial decrease from the time of the Surgeon General's report.
Despite progress on the anti-smoking front, smoking is still killing Americans, and the toll it takes impacts health care costs for smokers and non-smokers alike. Efforts to discourage the practice must continue.
The action by CVS won't make it a great deal more difficult for smokers to find cigarettes; there will be plenty of other locations that will continue to sell them. But the symbolic effort by a drugstore chain -- a move that will be costly for its bottom line -- remains important. If it spurs similar actions by CVS's competitors and other popular vendors of tobacco products such as grocery stores, the move would be doubly laudable. We commend CVS for taking an important first step and hope that others follow its lead.