From a Former Employee: 5 Reasons #CVSQuits is a Smokescreen

[Edited for clarity.]

This morning, the Internet was all a-twitter about #CVSQuits. CVS Caremark, the company that owns the CVS Pharmacy chain, has announced that CVS stores will be phasing out the sales of tobacco products. The move is an excellent publicity stunt, but, in my view, not terribly meaningful in terms of helping people’s health. Here’s why, based on what I know as a former CVS employee. (For the record, I left because I graduated college and got an office job, not because I was fired. Whenever I shop there, my former boss still tells me how much he wished I’d stayed.)

CVS isn’t really, or at least exclusively, a pharmacy.

Many of the people praising CVS on Twitter are asking why a “drug store” or “pharmacy” was in the business of selling tobacco products in the first place. The answer is simple: CVS stores are not pharmacies that happen to sell a few toiletries. Really, all CVSes are a full-on mass-merchandise retailers that happen to house pharmacies. In some areas, the local CVS serves as a general store. This is especially true when it’s a 24-hour store walking distance from working-poor neighborhoods.

CVSes in areas like mine actively participate in food-desert-like situations.

My store was the only walking-accessible store that sold groceries for several housing complexes filled with the working poor. Those with cars could shop at the closest grocery store, a Vons whose groceries were far more expensive than those from other local grocery chains. Those with cars who also had the time could go to an even further grocery store whose prices were better. I was lucky enough to have the time, work schedule, energy, and vehicle to make the trip to an Albertson’s several miles away. Many of my customers lacked that option. Their diets consisted of crappy food from our store which, to add insult to injury, could have been obtained much more cheaply from an actual grocery store.

CVS sells quack remedies.

Nearly everyone knows that smoking is bad for their health; smokers don’t smoke because they think it’s healthy. However, not everyone knows that CVS sells homeopathic “remedies” alongside actual medicines that contains active ingredients. The packaging and messaging is similar enough to ensure confusion. Meanwhile, cigarette packaging sports clear and prominent health warnings and tobacco products are hardly sold alongside, say, candy, or without age restriction.

CVS, like many retail stores, employs exploitative retail labor practices that create the working poor class.

Shuffling around hours regardless of people’s family life? Random scheduling at 24-hour stores that throws off sleep cycles? Punishing employees who call attention to scheduling mistakes by erasing their hours from the schedule rather than switching them with another willing employee? I’m not talking about Wal-Mart — CVS does those things all the time. I worked at a location where the regional manager was also the store manager and I knew people who worked at other stores in the region who had similar experiences, so schedule fuckery is hardly a one-off or rare occurrence. This might not be the case for other regions, but I happened to have worked for a fairly busy one.

Retail exploitation of labor leads to poor health outcomes, including nicotine addiction, due to stress and exhaustion. Sure, I read Nickel & Dimed when I was an adolescent, but nothing could prepare me for living like that myself: I was always tired. No amount of caffeine or supplements (both obtained at the oh-so-generous 20%-off employee discount) could alleviate the exhaustion that pervaded my life when I worked at CVS. I had the advantage of not having lived like that my whole life or having dependants. My coworkers were not so lucky. Many of them were parents and had other part-time jobs, which, along with the CVS gig, enabled them to scrape together a meager living. Their working-poor exhaustion reached levels I could not fathom. Judging or blaming them for using their 15-minute breaks to have a smoke would have been cruel.

Smoking rates continue to fall, but exploitative labor practices continue to rise.

The numbers don’t lie. CEO pay is rising while worker pay and benefits are falling. What used to be jobs by which teenagers could earn extra cash (retail, fast food, and so on) now constitute many adults’ main source of income. Remember my coworkers who worked multiple jobs? There are very few full-time positions available in retail; most retail positions these days are “part-time” (read: 35-hour-a-week) jobs designed to ensure that people aren’t eligible for benefits. As a result, people with dependents are forced to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. This means juggling transportation as well as multiple schedules and uniforms, ensuring more difficulties for people whose lives are already difficult.

Meanwhile, smoking rates have been dropping relatively steadily and rapidly. This isn’t to suggest causation or even correlation, just disingenuity on the part of CVS. People who are working poor tend to have worse health outcomes due to a lack of healthcare, nutritious diet, and sleep.

Despite that tweet, CVS continues to engage in practices that encourage such outcomes in their workers, who, I guess, don’t count as “people” to them.

Until CVS starts treating its workers in a way that enables optimal health outcomes, moves like #CVSQuits are mostly publicity stunts to me. The only effect this is going to have is to elevate CVS’s profile and perhaps alleviate feelings of hypocrisy among their direct pharmacy staff. I doubt it’s going to make anyone much healthier.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. Good post, Heina. For me, the last two points are probably much more problematic than the first two points. The idea that by no longer selling cigarettes that the store is somehow improving people’s lives can serve as a smokescreen to hide the other ways they are contributing to marginalization. Thanks for pointing this out!

    1. I don’t know. A pharmacy that sells quack remedies is a big deal. I mean, I’ve spent time in South Africa, so I know quackery can be a social justice issue all on its own.

      (And I distinctly remember “Lakota” supplements, which it turned out had weed in them. Also, cultural appropriation much?)

      Yeah, sometimes I have to wonder if there’s any chain store that doesn’t push the envelope on labor issues.

    1. Because Prohibition didn’t end well, and the War on Drugs is doing more harm than good?
      I don’t think driving tobacco into the drug trade would be helpful to anyone but the cartels and would turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals.

  2. Maybe this is just the stores in my city, but both the CVS and the Walgreens have a prominent display right near the pharmacy desks with exclusively Christian self-help and inspirational books.

  3. I am always so annoyed when I see homeopathic bs mixed in with the real medicine (like oscillococcinum next to the theraflu). One of my local pharmacies actually does put them off in a separate area, so I try to go to that one when I can.

    It’s probably also worth noting that CVS often has a huuuuuge liquor section, at least in states that allow it.

    1. I went to buy cough drops last week. Picked out a flavor I liked. Bought them and went home. Put one in my mouth before I realized they were damn homepathic.

  4. I just assumed that they realized they could make more money dedicating the space now used to sell tobacco to selling something else. I can’t imagine tobacco licenses are cheap and with a big chain of stores, you’re going to inevitably have some employees get you fined for violating the terms of said license. Now, both those expenses are gone. Plus, most municipalities have jacked up tobacco taxes so high it’s probably no longer a high mark-up item. So, you announce that you’re no longer selling tobacco because you “care” about the health of your customers.

  5. I’m not sure about it being a smokescreen. CVS is a typical crappy low-wage employer whose average wage looks better than a Wal-Mart because pharmacy staff are a much larger percentage of their workforce and they get paid more.

    I assume that the reason they are pulling out of cigarettes is that sales are declining and higher state taxes are encouraging the dwindling number of smokers remaining to go to tax free stores on Indian reservations and the like. Ten years ago it was still possible to smoke in almost every public place. Today smoking is banned in most public parts of most of the larger cities and that is a national trend.

    Stores used to carry cigarettes because it was a product that smokers would go out to a store for. It brought in people who would buy other stuff. This looks to me to be evidence that when CVS crunched the numbers, they found that they don’t get as much value from giving that space to ciggies as they would from other products.

  6. According to NPR, the reason CVS is ending cigarette sales is that they want to expand their “Minute Clinic” and in-store health care services. I wonder if they’ll start phasing out other products that give off “unhealthy” vibes like beer/wine or food products altogether.

    1. They opened up a dedicated booze warehouse in Phoenix (I used to be their receptionist lol). That was in 2008. I just don’t see them getting rid of such a HUGE investment. In fact, it was in 2008 or so that they started selling booze (again?) in the states that allow that. So.

  7. Thanks for the clarification edits, Heina.

    As a pharmacy tech at a CVS I have no love for the company itself. It has a lot of policies that actually make our jobs more stressful, particularly their tendency (which many corporations fall into) of ranking stores on guidelines which do not take into account things like neighborhood demographic, the rate of insured, state insured, and uninsured patients, etc. It means we’re doing a lot of practices which totally make sense for stores in wealthier neighborhoods or with mostly privately insured patients, while we have mostly state-insured patients.

    I personally don’t buy into the “your shitty labor practices cause more people to smoke” argument because, well, clearly shitty labor practices are on the rise while smoking rates are decreasing. The main change seems to be due to the reduction in spaces where smoking is accepted. Taking that into account, I’d argue that the fewer stores sell this legal product, the more of a hassle it will be to obtain said product. If it becomes easier to get smoking cessation products rather than smokes, then that does make a real impact in people’s health.

    I just take issue with “well of course people smoke, they’re stressed.” Blaming a shitty work environment for a choice in vices that has literally no health benefits is taking the blame for the shitty habit off of the person who made the choice to smoke in the first fucking place.

    There are a lot of bad habits or choices that still have some modicum of justification. Eating fast food because you work fucked up hours? Better than NOT eating. There’s no equivalent argument for cigarettes.

    Short version: do I think it’s silly for the store to care about people’s health by banning tobacco sales, while they continue to sell quackery? Yes. Do I think the store is hypocritical because of labor practices supposedly being tied to smoking? Nope.

  8. CVS’ selling of homeopathic products ticks me off too, but it’s not like they’re any different from any other similar retail store in that respect. As far as I know, they all sell that crap.

    What irritates me more than the mere selling of the stuff, though, is the fact that CVS’ website *promotes* the crap. They offer up a lengthy list of homeopathic treatments and the ailments they supposedly address, and they have a lengthy “Overview” of homeopathy. And only halfway through that promotional “Overview” do they finally acknowledge that homeopathy doesn’t work: the site’s actual quote is “most modern scientific authorities do not take homeopathy seriously, putting it in the same category as perpetual motion machines, ghosts, and ESP.”

    And yet then it goes on to basically defend homeopathy as something people shouldn’t be hesitant to use.

  9. I wouldn’t characterize CVS as having “exploitative” labor practices. It is a safe, clean environment to work, and they follow the labor laws currently in terms of wages, hours and overtime compensation. Employees basically stock shelves, run the cash registers and the photo section, and the pharmacy staff runs a nice, clean pharmacy. They may not pay as much as we would like, but other than the pharmacy staff it’s mostly young people that work their anyway, and unskilled folks. There are several CVS’s near me and I prefer them over Walgreens (for every CVS there seems to be a kitty-corner Walgreens nearby). The check-out person usually looks between the ages of 18 and 25. Most of us worked low pay jobs early on.

    I think that CVS made their move because they, quite simply, expect to make more money because of the move than if they did not make the move. I don’t see anything wrong with that, either. I haven’t given them a round of applause over jettisoning their ciggie sales section. I don’t really care. Sell them, or don’t. It isn’t going to really accomplish anything for the nation’s overall health.

    I view it as, like, the time drug stores took Playboy and Penthouse magazine and such off the magazine rack shelves. Time was, a teenager could drop by the local drug store and pretend to browse the guitar magazines while surreptitiously paging through the latest issue of Penthouse. At some point, the drug stores changed their marketing of magazines and this went away. Does anyone think they did this because they thought it was bad for underage boys to be eyeballing “lad’s mags?” Of course not. They did it because they thought it was in their interest to do it. Same with cigs.

    1. Hm, you seemed to have missed some of the things in my piece.

      they follow the labor laws currently in terms of wages, hours and overtime compensation.

      That doesn’t make them economically just, that simply makes them legal.

      They may not pay as much as we would like, but other than the pharmacy staff it’s mostly young people that work their anyway, and unskilled folks. There are several CVS’s near me and I prefer them over Walgreens (for every CVS there seems to be a kitty-corner Walgreens nearby). The check-out person usually looks between the ages of 18 and 25. Most of us worked low pay jobs early on

      That’s your CVS. The “unskilled folks” you mention are the ones I’m concerned about — the household heads who work several jobs in order to make ends meet since CVS and other retailers deliberately hire “part-timers” to save money on benefits and compensation. People with families constituted the majority of the retail workers at my stores; in my area, the CVSes are staffed almost exclusively by non-teenagers. Also, do 18-25-year-olds not deserve a living wage, in your view? I was supporting myself at 21, when I worked at CVS. Did I deserve to get paid wages that made it barely affordable for me to share a room in an apartment in a crappy neighborhood, a 3-bedroom I shared with 4 other people (and by “barely affordable”, I mean I only spent money on necessities and still overdrafted regularly)?

      1. Well, you’ll have to define “economically just” and cite your source, if any beyond your own view of it. Not that your own view of it is not valuable. Individual views can be quite valuable.

        As for worrying about the unskilled heads of household, I can understand your concern there. However, the fact that a job is worth $X to CVS doesn’t mean they have “exploitative labor practices,” which was your thesis. Take the value to me (or you, perhaps) of a babysitter for a child, or a cleaning person for a home once or twice a month. To me, the job is worth, to me, what I think it’s worth. I won’t pay more. If it starts costing too much, then I’ll find another way to get it done. I won’t pay the cleaning person we have more than $75 to clean the house. Honestly, I think that’s pushing it, and we could find someone to do it for less, but my wife likes the one we have so I pay a little more. If I want my lawn cut, i’m not paying more than $25 for it. Otherwise, I’ll cut it myself. Am I “exploitative?” Does it depend on whether the person cutting my lawn or cleaning my house is a “head of household?”

        As for who “deserves” a living wage — it’s an impossible question to answer. What’s a “living wage?” $10 per hour? $15? $20? $25 per hour? If you’ll specify what it is you mean by living wage, then I’d be happy to answer whether a person who runs a cash register at a CVS “deserves” that amount. To try to answer your question, I certainly don’t think the job is worth $25 per hour, or even $20 per hour ($20 per hour is $40k per year).

        With respect to your situation when you were 21, it’s not really CVS’s problem. They have a job to fill, if you want it you can apply for it. They aren’t a social welfare organization, nor should they be. It’s really not about whether you “deserve” this wage or that wage. I’m sure you’re a good person, and you “deserve” a wonderful life of riches and love and kindness and glory and fame — you probably deserve whatever your heart desires. That doesn’t mean CVS has to foot the bill for it.

        We can all relate, well most of us can, stories of our younger days. I put myself through college, and worked my tail off in the summers and over winter break. I froze my fingers at a gas station making minimum wage 16 hours a day during Christmas break the first year. I flipped burgers and worked at an independent drug store during school, while taking a full load of credits. I upgraded to roofing and construction during the summers. I didn’t come from a rich family. Did I “deserve” to make a living wage? I think I did. Did the Texaco I worked at have an obligation to double my wages?

        Now a question for you — when you hire someone at Skepchick or in any of your endeavors (perhaps a babysitter or some other home related pay job), do you evaluate their personal situation before you tell them what you’ll pay? Do you determine if they “deserve” more money, or if they “need” more money? Does the babysitter who is babysitting to get more money to support her family merit more money for babysitting than your neighbor’s 18 year old stay-at-home daughter?

        1. Unfortunately, the situation you describe regarding yourself is becoming rarer and rarer, especially but not exclusive to those who are poorer now. There is less and less class mobility in the working poor as time goes on.

          As we seem to disagree on the point that people deserve a fair wage, one that allows them to pay rent and afford to eat and live in general, I will refrain from more specific arguments against what you claim. We don’t start with the same premise here.

          1. Fair enough.

            I think another premise where we disagree is that there is some known quantity called a “fair wage” — until that wage is defined in a conversation, discussion of it is impossible.

            Moreover, and even more basic premise is to achieve a mutual understanding of what we each mean by a wage being fair. You seem to define a fair wage as a wage that would allow a person to pay rent and afford to eat and live in general. I would submit that this cannot be a wholly satisfactory definition, because it would certainly forestall part time jobs — for example someone might work at a local library maybe one day a week, and the pay they earn there won’t allow them to do much of anything. Or, they may be doing a job that is on the cusp of even being necessary, like when a local store hires teenagers to come in and do odd-jobs around the store — maybe. The proprietor may have them come in to take the trash out, clean up a few things — mainly stuff that they’d figure out a way to get done another way, if it was too expensive to hire a little extra help around. Does “fair” mean a wage that will allow the helpers to pay rent and support themselves?

            We also disagree, I think, in the application of the word “deserve” here or at least it’s relevance. I do, in fact, think people deserve a fair wage. I think people deserve more than that. They are deserving of wealth, wisdom, self-actualization, and lives of bliss and joy. They deserve all of that.

        2. If one company or person refuses to pay a living wage, then what will happen is workers will leave as they find better jobs or not hire on there at all. And the company that does that will founder under the stress of not being able to retain qualified people. (And if you don’t think retail involves skills you’re delusional.)

          If ALL the companies and people are doing that, where the hell do workers go? THAT is a big chunk of what you seem to be missing. Many companies are doing this. They’re refusing to give employees enough hours to qualify as full-time (WalMart, Staples), they’re paying only what they’re legally mandated to, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I so rarely see teenagers working retail or fast food anymore, it’s noteworthy when it does happen. Mostly I see adults trying to scrape by, being exploited by companies gaming the system, while taking HUGE tax breaks.

          Also, $75 to clean your house? Are you living in a two room shack? Because Dude, you are SERIOUSLY under-paying your housekeeper, and probably exploiting someone desperate for money. Grats on that.

          1. I’ve noticed. Here in Florida there are young people in their late teens and early 20s all the time in McDonalds and such. I’m not sure how you know the adult you see there is “trying to scrape by.’ They may well be a second income just supplementing the main breadwinner.

            However, the use of the term “exploited” here is another unfortunately vague and useless term. To me, to call a McDona’ds worker ‘exploited’ is an insult to workers who really have been treated poorly. McDonalds is a great place to work. It’s clean, safe, regulated and stable. The wage is low, but the wage that McDonalds is offering is known to the employee in advance and they take the job. The only real “exploitation” here is that you and others think that McDonalds should pay more per hour. By that test, even if they’re paid $15 an hour, they’d still be “exploited.”

            As for tax breaks, let’s discuss the specific tax breaks you have in mind. I’m all for cutting off any tax breaks a company like McDonalds is getting.

            And, you can keep your uninformed allegations that I’m “exploiting” someone to clean my house to yourself. You don’t know me, or what I’m doing, yet you accuse me of underpaying? Let me explain it to you — first of all — I didn’t tell the housekeeper what she would get. She told us what she charged. We agreed to pay it without argument. How the hell would that make me an exploiter? And, “desperate for money?” You’re out of your mind. The lady is booked solid. She has no open appointments, and she does 2-3 houses per day – probably clears $70k a year, mostly cash. Her husband works another cleaning job doing mostly commercial offices, and the two of them together easily push $150k a year. Desperate for money, lol.

  10. As an employee of CVS, I find Heina’s comments 100% on point.
    A pharmacy tech can and will be expected to work up to 12 hours a day with no breaks. CVS does not care for the health or well being of their employees, they’re only concerned with making money. The pharmacists are overworked in the higher volume stores, leaving room for error much higher than it should be. When errors do occur, management becomes proactive in finding WHO did it as opposed to WHY DID IT HAPPEN. They know the answer as to why, but they won’t receive their yearly bonuses if they schedule more help and use up too many hours. Their expectations are insane.
    You cannot survive on what CVS pays, and some of you comment on cashiers shouldn’t make a lot because they don’t earn it. Being at a register in a busy store for 8 hours “without a break”, being yelled at by customers, going through a bottle of hand sanitizer in a day because 90% of your customers are there because they are sick, When they’re sick, they’re cranky, mean and just plain unpleasant to deal with. You are expected to clean the store, clean the bathrooms that the sick customers muck up every hour on the hour, stock shelves, clean the parking lot, gather carts, help in pharmacy if they get swamped, and put back all of the items the customers decided they didn’t want at the register., etc. If we were allowed to JUST be at the register, I’d agree that minimum wage is acceptable. I often wonder why our employees continue to show up, I’ve even asked myself why I should. It’s a job…

    1. In case you are not aware, most states have labor laws that require paid break periods for employees who work a certain number of hours. If you are not getting break periods (and if your co-workers are experiencing the same problem), you should look into filing a complaint with your state labor department. Most permit anonymous reports, and will then come out to investigate. Here is a chart that you can use to determine whether such laws would protect you where you work:

  11. Correcting myself: apparently most states do not have paid break requirements. I work in one of the states that does (and generally isn’t very progressive on labor issues), so I didn’t realize how rare it is. Nevertheless, there are a few states covered, and it is worth looking. Also, there are several additional states that have lunch break requirements (I think most are unpaid, but there is some relief to be had).

    It is still worth checking out.

  12. While all of us are aware of mandatory breaks, most are afraid to say anything. Anyone that is vocal about it gets their hours reduced, some to one day a week.
    What I think Heina and a few others here are not aware of is that there are a lot of adults that work for CVS also. The recession hit a lot of us very hard and we were forced to take employment where we could. Our store employs people from age 18-50’s. When unemployment runs out, you take what you can get.
    I wonder how many 24 hour CVS’s have only one employee on duty with a pharmacist on the overnights. Overnight shift has no opportunity to take a break, use the bathroom, or just sit for 5 minutes.

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