Five years ago today, CVS pulled all tobacco products from it shelves, shutting off a $2 billion a year business, but creating a path for the company’s transformation into a health care provider (and ultimately, its acquisition of Aetna.) The move led to a measurable decline in cigarette sales and smoking. It was a sterling example of a company pursuing purpose at the expense of short-term profit, leading to benefits for both the business and society.
This morning, CVS is launching a new $50 million campaign to help stop teen vaping, and create the first tobacco-free generation. The rise of teen vaping “is something I am personally very worried about,” CEO Larry Merlo told me Friday. He cited a study showing “78% of school age kids who are vaping are likely to begin smoking before they finish high school.”
Are we backsliding on smoking? “In some respects, I do see us going backward,” Merlo replied. The company plans to boost smoking cessation programs both though CVS Caremark and through Aetna managed care plans.
The tobacco decision five years ago “was foundational to our growth as a health care company,” Merlo said. “It served as a point of validation that we are a very credible health care provider.” He said it also had a big impact on the firm’s culture, engaging employees across the company. “It brought our purpose to life in a very meaningful way.” A lesson there for others?