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CVS makes the right call on dropping tobacco

FILE - In this Wednesday July 17 2013 file phoMarlboro cigarettes are display CVS store Pittsburgh. The nation's second-largest drugstore

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 17, 2013 file photo, Marlboro cigarettes are on display in a CVS store in Pittsburgh. The nation's second-largest drugstore chain says it will phase out cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco by Oct. 1 as it continues to focus more on health care. The move will cost the Woonsocket, R.I., company about $2 billion in annual revenue. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) ORG XMIT: NY111

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Updated: March 7, 2014 1:33PM

CVS made a wise business decision on Wednesday.

It also did something good for public health.

And all this happened organically, with pressure applied, but without the heavy hand of government or a nanny-state intrusion.

That’s a win for all.

CVS Caremark Corp., the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain, said on Wednesday that it will stop selling tobacco products at its 7,600 stores by October. All other national chains sell cigarettes.

We hope Deerfield-based Walgreens is next.

The No. 1 pharmacy chain on Wednesday said in a statement that it would “continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want.” Another large chain, Rite Aid, said in a statement that it was continually reviewing its product mix.

CVS made its decision as it’s shifting from straight retail to becoming a significant health-care provider, with a growing emphasis on MinuteClinics, flu shots and health-care advice. Cigarettes and health care don’t go together, the company said. Clearly health care, not cigarette sales, is where it can bank on future growth.

Walgreeens, like CVS, emphasizes good health, most notably with its slogan “At the corner of happy & healthy.” Pressure in the wake of CVS’ decision will, perhaps, push Walgreens to truly live that slogan.

After watching smoking use drop dramatically over the years, CVS decided that continued cigarette sales weren’t good for business long term. The short-term loss in cigarette sales, the company clearly decided, could be made up eventually with growth in health-care services.

The broader turn away from cigarettes didn’t happen by accident, of course. Government regulation of cigarettes, public education campaigns that spread the bad news about cigarettes and taxes have helped dramatically reduce cigarette smoking.

All those efforts helped create an environment where smoking has becoming increasingly unacceptable. And that’s what CVS is tapping into.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. Though cigarette smoking has decreased significantly over the last several decades, the rate of decline has plateaued over the last 10 years. Each year, about 480,000 deaths are linked to smoking, according to a U.S. Surgeon General report last month, and fortunes are spent treating preventable, smoking-related diseases. About 18 percent of the population smokes.

We’d all benefit by bringing those numbers down and, just this month, several major advocacy groups called on government leaders to commit to cutting smoking rates to less than 10 percent in a decade.

No one is naive enough to think that smokers will give up the habit because they can’t pick up a pack at CVS. Plenty of other options exist, as the market demands.

But the fewer options there are, the less likely people are to smoke.

And the more that business interests line up with the public interest, the faster those outlets will disappear.

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