3 Questions for Platinum Hall of Famer CVS Health on Quitting Cigarettes for Good

healtchare professional breaking cigarette in half

As part of its annual Platinum PR & Agency Elite Awards program celebrating the best and brightest in communications, PR News handpicks a group of campaigns that will likely be remembered in years to come for their ingenuity, strategic messaging and measurable communications outcomes. These campaigns make up PR News’ Platinum Hall of Fame, and this year's winners will be officially inducted at PR News' Platinum PR & Agency Elite Awards luncheon Sept. 21 in New York City.

One of this year's Hall of Fame inductees, CVS Health, was selected for its CVS Quits campaign. In February 2014, the company announced the banning of tobacco products in its stores. The brand received a slew of accolades for its bold move in mainstream news publications, on social media and from influencers in the health space. Furthermore, it successfully established itself as a health care organization, rather than simply a pharmacy chain.

Days after CVS' big announcement to end tobacco sales, CBS' Bob Schieffer, a former tobacco user and cancer survivor, personally thanked the company on "Face the Nation." CVS Caremark's VP, corporate communications Carolyn Castel, told PR News that the segment "always stood out to me, not just because of its passion and sincerity but also because it was entirely spontaneous."

PR News learned more about the Hall of Fame-winning initiative from Castel, below:

PR News: What channels did you use to promote CVS' commitment to stop selling cigarettes in stores? What did media coverage of CVS Quits look like?

Carolyn Castel: On Feb. 5, 2014, we announced via press release that we would stop selling cigarettes in all CVS Pharmacy stores, making us the first national pharmacy chain to take this step in support of the health of our patients and customers. We supported this announcement with traditional media outreach, online media, social media and owned media totaling up to 218 million print and broadcast impressions in the first week in addition to 200,000 social media mentions.

The substantial attention we received on day one of the announcement drove front page coverage on day two and kept the story trending through the weekend with major outlets telling the story from multiple angles.

In addition, third-party engagement from groups like the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and others generated an immediate wave of support. We also received accolades from Michelle Obama, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many others for our public health leadership.

PR News: How do you see the initiative impacting the healthcare and medical world at large? Tell us a bit about the CVS Health Research Institute study. How did you publicize the results?

CC: It’s been three years since we exited tobacco, and it remains a source of great pride for CVS Health. The decision helped to validate our role as a health care company. If we wanted CVS Health to be credibly viewed in the health care community, then the sale of tobacco had no place in our stores. The fact that other companies and consumers now see us as a convenient and affordable point of access for quality health care creates longer-term growth opportunities for our business.

On the morning of the announcement, our Chief Medical Officer, Troyen A. Brennan, M.D., and Steven A. Schroeder, Director, Smoking Cessation Leadership Center, University of California, San Francisco, wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): “The paradox of cigarette sales in pharmacies has become even more relevant recently, in large part because of changes in the pharmacy industry. Most pharmacy chains are retooling themselves as an integral part of the health care system. They are offering more counseling by pharmacists, an array of wellness products and outreach to clinicians and health care centers. Perhaps more important, pharmacies are moving into the treatment arena, with the advent of retail health clinics. These retail clinics, originally designed to address common acute infections, are gearing up to work with primary care clinicians to assist in treating hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes, all conditions exacerbated by smoking.”

It was our hope—and expectation—that our decision to exit tobacco would make a positive impact on public health. And indeed it did. In the eight months following our exit from tobacco sales, smokers in states where CVS Pharmacy had a 15 percent or greater share of the retail pharmacy market purchased 95 million fewer packs of cigarettes. We also saw a four percent increase in nicotine patch purchases in the states with a CVS Pharmacy market share of 15 percent or more, in the period immediately following the end of tobacco sales.

Most recently, findings showing that customers who had purchased cigarettes exclusively at CVS Pharmacy were 38 percent more likely to stop buying, and presumably stop using, cigarettes altogether were published in the American Journal of Public Health. This research confirmed and expanded upon initial data released on the one-year anniversary of our removal of tobacco products from our retail stores. It proves that our decision had a powerful public health impact by disrupting access to cigarettes and helping more of our customers on their path to better health.

PR News: How has CVS Health established itself as a distinct brand within the CVS franchise?

CC: The same day that we announced that we had quit tobacco sales for good, we also announced a corporate name change to CVS Health to reflect the company’s broader commitment to health care. Through its retail locations, walk-in medical clinics, expanding specialty pharmacy services and its Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, the company enables communities to manage health in more affordable and effective ways. This unique integrated model increases access to quality care, delivers better health outcomes and lowers overall health care costs.

There’s no question that our decision to end tobacco sales has helped our business and opened up new partnerships for our company. It is certainly a differentiator for us and a source of great pride for the entire company and all of our colleagues.

We've continued to build on our decision to stop selling tobacco by introducing new programs and initiatives that help our colleagues, customers and patients lead tobacco-free lives. In 2016 we introduced BE THE FIRST, a five-year $50 million initiative to help deliver the nation’s first tobacco-free generation. Since launching BE THE FIRST, we have engaged 4.4 million youth with tobacco prevention education, and have helped 146 colleges and universities go tobacco-free.

Hear from CVS Health and the rest of the Platinum Hall of Fame inductees in person at PR News' Platinum & Agency Elite Awards Sept. 21 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. ESPN's Hannah Storm will be hosting.