No Butts About It: CVS Decision to Stop Selling Tobacco Products Rebrands the Retail Chain

cigsCVS Caremark, the country’s largest drugstore chain, is stamping out cigarette and tobacco sales. The move rebrands CVS as a healthcare company, positioning the chain store well beyond its retail business and drawing a sharp distinction with its competitors.

CVS said it would remove all tobacco products at its 26,000 pharmacies by October. It’s the first national pharmacy chain to take this action.

The company’s decision will cost it an estimated $2 billion in sales from tobacco buyers, according to reports, but that’s a drop in the bucket considering its overall sales of $123 billion in 2012.

Yet that money may be easily recouped as CVS touts its healthcare services. Either way, CVS has cleared the air about the role the company wants to play in U.S. healthcare.

“By removing tobacco products from our retail shelves, we will better serve our patients, clients and healthcare providers while positioning CVS Caremark for future growth as a healthcare company,” the comapny's President-CEO, Larry Merlo, said in a statement. “Cigarettes and tobacco products have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered. This is the right thing to do.”

As part of the move, the company said it would launch a national smoking cessation plan this spring. According to CVS, 9 in 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking, while 480,000 people in the U.S. die annually from smoking.

CVS wants to take a lead role in changing that, apparently.

The decision has already provided some brand lift. NBC News’ report on the move included this message from President Obama: "As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example, and today's decision will help advance my Administration's efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer and heart disease, as well as bring down healthcare costs—ultimately saving lives and protecting untold numbers of families from pain and heartbreak for years to come."

And CVS medical officer Dr. Troyen Brennan wrote in an editorial published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “This action may not lead many people to stop smoking; smokers will probably simply go elsewhere to buy cigarettes. But if other retailers follow this lead, tobacco products will become much more difficult to obtain.”

CVS’s move provides a robust example for PR pros and communicators who are eager to change the perception of their brands: Take a leadership role, be bold and, perhaps most important, be prepared to follow your decision with action.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1