It’s quite easy for a corporation to make a move that doesn’t affect their bottom line too badly and is along the lines of public opinion. They make the move, garner the praise, and enjoy the defense of the general public against the few who raise their voices against said move.
This is what happened last week, when CVS announced that it would stop selling tobacco products. The move was almost universally hailed. As a former employee, I saw the problems with such a move, which was framed by CVS as made out of concern for people’s health. Update: Fred McCoy pointed out another piece critical of the move that breaks down the numbers fairly starkly: CVS’s decision to stop selling cigarettes has got to be one of the easiest it ever made.
US cigarette sales have fallen nearly a third between 2003 and 2013, and just 18% of adults in the US smoke
CVS Caremark Corp reports that its stores will lose an estimated $2 billion in sales from tobacco products this year, but it still expects to make $132.9 billion in total sales. Moreover, if sales fall further—and they will, barring a sudden resurgence of smoking in America—it’s a smart PR move for the company to pull the products while it still seems like a sacrifice.
It plans to replace lost tobacco sales by selling anti-smoking aids like nicotine patches.
only 4% of US tobacco sales occurred in drugstores in 2012, compared to 16% in convenience stores, 21% in specialist shops, and 48% in gas stations
Though he was far from the only person to criticize my piece, David Gorski aka Orac over at Science Blogs articulated many of the criticisms I received in a way that I found accessible, so I will address them by quoting him here.
It is a story about knee jerk responses to which we all (myself included) fall prey.
My post was actually the result of much talking, thinking, and writing about the working poor I’ve done in the years since my employment with CVS. The #CVSQuits announcement was what inspired me to write the post, but the salient points could be made without any mention of it. The announcement merely highlighted the hypocrisy in a way I found convenient.
Consider this example. Your friend has just successfully quit smoking (example intentional) and tells you he’s reached his one year mark off of cigarettes. In response, you say, “That’s great! Good work. Now, about your weight…” In the same way, skeptics are saying things like, “Great job, CVS. Excellent decision. Now, about that homeopathy…”
This analogy is flawed in that it doesn’t correctly weight the effects in question. Smoking is far more deadly than being overweight. On the other hand, ceasing the sales of tobacco products will not stop smokers from smoking, but ending exploitative labor practices that lead to poverty would have a hugely positive effect on the health of CVS employees and their families.
However, all of this [the phenomenon of food deserts], as unfortunate as it is, has nothing to do with whether or not the decision to drop tobacco products was a rare responsible decision by a large corporation.
It has everything to do with it since CVS claimed that the move to drop tobacco products was to help people’s health. Again, smokers will not quit smoking because of CVS’s move. However, rectifying the problem of food deserts will directly end many problems with nutrition, something that has a lot to do with health.
when a company does something that is good for public health, [we skeptics shouldn’t] immediately attack the company for not doing something else that we think it should be doing. Accept the good action for what it is, acknowledge that it’s good, and resist the impulse to instantly yoke it to criticism of bad things the company is still doing.
It isn’t that great of a move: it will not stop anyone from smoking. As for the “yoking” in which I engaged? A great way to get people to pay attention to what you have to say is to tie it into a current event to which they are paying attention. Much as Orac used my piece to talk about his frustration with his perception of knee-jerk reactions, negativity, and demands for moral purity, I used #CVSQuits to talk about deeper inequalities that often are ignored in the greater discussions of corporate responsibility.
Smokers are not going to quit smoking just because CVS has stopped selling tobacco products; public opinion is squarely against smokers and smoking in the first place. CVS’s move, then, stands to benefit nearly no one and nothing but CVS’s public image and perhaps the consciences of some CVS pharmacy employees. Meanwhile, the company continues to engage in practices that directly lead to adverse health outcomes in its retail employees.
Just because no one is perfect doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a flaw or that some flaws aren’t worse than others. Just because some of us demand more and better doesn’t mean that we demand perfection: it simply means that we have different priorities. Seeing as smoking rates continue to fall despite the fact that many stores sell cigarettes, CVS’s move, made in the name of “health,” is disingenuous. If CVS really cared about health, it would make the more expensive move that would help far more people’s health in a much more direct way. They are in the business of profit, like any corporation, and so they made the slick PR move instead. It clearly paid off.