uncredited / The Associated Press

A new ad campaign by the Food and Drug Administration warns teens that smoking will lead to wrinkled skin.

Editorial: CVS pullout, new ads will lower tobacco’s deadly toll

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 - 3:53 pm

America is at a crossroads 50 years after the landmark government report that launched the anti-smoking movement.

Far fewer Americans smoke today – 18 percent of adults, compared to 42 percent in 1964. But progress has stalled for about the past decade; 44 million adults still smoke and an estimated 1.2 million youths start each year. As the surgeon general pointed out last month, smoking is still the top cause of preventable deaths, about 480,000 a year.

Two major and welcome developments this week will help lower tobacco’s deadly toll, in different ways.

Wednesday, CVS announced that it will stop selling tobacco products by Oct. 1, the first national drugstore chain to do so. Finally recognizing the conflict, the company said that promoting cigarettes no longer fits its future as a health care company.

Walgreen, Rite-Aid and other drugstore chains ought to consider following suit. So should Wal-Mart and other retail giants that have pharmacies in their stores.

Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled a major ad campaign aimed at young people between 12 and 17, following up on the surgeon general’s call to make the next generation smoke-free.

The vivid ads try to hit home with teens by showing the costs of smoking. One theme is that cigarettes take control of their lives; some ads star a miniature, potbellied bully who drags teens away from school and TV and orders them to fork over their money.

The other theme focuses on appearance. In one TV spot, a girl rips off part of the skin on her cheek to pay for cigarettes; in another, a boy has to wrench out a tooth with pliers. That message isn’t entirely new. During the 1990s, the California Department of Public Health produced ads that warned young women that smoking causes wrinkles and young men that it could make them impotent.

But the message is now going out nationwide and the medium is different. Starting next Tuesday, the campaign will appear for a year on Facebook and Twitter (hashtag #TheRealCost), as well as the usual ads on radio and TV and in teen-oriented magazines.

The first ads cost $115 million; over the next five years, the campaign could total $600 million – all paid for by the tobacco industry under a 2009 law signed by President Barack Obama that gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

It’s worth noticing that in the ads, the teens are buying cigarettes at a convenience store. That highlights the fact that only about 4 percent of tobacco products are purchased at drugstores. While the CVS move is limited in scope, Obama praised the chain for setting a “powerful example.”

CVS – the nation’s second-biggest drugstore chain with 7,600 stores, including about 850 across California – estimates it will lose $1.5 billion a year in tobacco sales, plus $500 million in other purchases by smokers. That’s only about 1.5 percent of the company’s total revenue, however; its stock price dropped only 1 percent Wednesday.

Billing itself as the nation’s largest pharmacy health care provider, CVS has made a strategic decision to focus on that growing part of its business. “Put simply,” President and CEO Larry J. Merlo said in a statement, “the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”

Simple perhaps, but it’s an important message being sent loud and clear.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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