WASHINGTON — CVS Caremark, the nation's second-largest drugstore chain, plans to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its more than 7,600 retail stores by Oct. 1, a landmark decision that would make it the first national pharmacy company to cease tobacco sales.
The move, which the company announced Wednesday, comes after years of pressure from public health advocates and medical providers, who have urged retailers to make tobacco products and advertising less available, particularly to children and teenagers.
It also marks a major turn for one of the country's biggest healthcare companies, which said it is giving up about $2 billion in annual sales, or about 1.6% of the company's 2012 revenues.
CVS, which is second only to Walgreen Co. in retail locations, has been steadily increasing its business providing medical care through its pharmacists and a growing number of urgent care clinics at its retail locations.
"As the delivery of healthcare evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care," Larry J. Merlo, the president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. "Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."
CVS, based in Woonsocket, R.I., also pledged to launch what it called a "robust national smoking cessation program" this spring.
Nationwide, less than 5% of cigarette sales occurred in pharmacies in 2009, according to a study by the Center for Global Tobacco Control. But sales at pharmacies have been increasing, even as overall cigarette sales declined.
Public health advocates hailed the CVS decision, expressing optimism that it could catalyze new efforts to curb tobacco use.
"This is a bold step," said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "CVS is clearly establishing a leadership position in making the country healthier and in building a culture of health."
Half a century after the ground-breaking U.S. Surgeon General's report warning of the dangers of smoking, the nation has dramatically cut smoking rates for adults from 42% in 1965 to just 19% in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But public health advocates have grown concerned that progress has stalled in recent years.
No major retailer has taken steps to limit tobacco sales since Target announced in 1996 that it would stop selling tobacco products.
And though pressure on pharmacies has been growing, Walgreen went to court to try to stop San Francisco from imposing a ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies. The challenge was dismissed by a federal court. Boston has enacted a similar ban.
Public health advocates hope that reducing the number of stores where tobacco products can be sold and advertised will help push smoking rates down even further.
"We need another boost," said Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society.
While acknowledging that smokers will be able to go somewhere else to buy cigarettes, Wender and other advocates said making purchases a little more difficult can help tobacco users resist the urge to buy.
"It is a hard habit to break," said Robin Koval, president and chief executive officer of Legacy, a foundation that is a leading advocate for the prevention of tobacco use. "But if you are standing there in a store … and the ad and the display is there in front of you, you may not be able to resist the urge."
CVS executives said they hoped the company's decision would also contribute to the ongoing campaign to make tobacco use socially unacceptable.
"Making cigarettes available in pharmacies in essence 'renormalizes' the product by sending the subtle message that it cannot be all that unhealthy if it is available for purchase where medicines are sold," the company's chief medical officer, Dr. Troyen Brennan, wrote in a new article in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. The article is co-authored by Dr. Steven Schroeder, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at UC San Francisco.
In June, Starbucks began prohibiting smokers from lighting up within a 25-foot radius of its stores, attributing the rule to "a sense of responsibility to provide customers with a safe and healthy environment." The Seattle coffee giant had previously banned smoking inside its cafes.
It is unclear if other pharmacy chains will follow CVS' lead.
When Target stopped selling tobacco products nearly two decades ago, the company cited low profit margins in part because the high costs of theft and enforcement of age restrictions on sales.
CVS said that the anticipated $2-billion annual sales hit would not change its profit guidance for the year.
The company said it has "identified incremental opportunities that are expected to offset the profitability impact," but did not specify what they are. CVS reported total revenues of $123 billion in 2012.