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US chain CVS stops tobacco sales: over to you, Coles and Woolworths

The announcement by CVS, one of the largest drug store chains in the United States, that it will cease selling tobacco by October this year will have Coles' and Woolworths' public relations in a spin…

The clock is ticking for Coles and Woolworths to announce they’ll stop selling cigarettes. Image from shutterstock.com

The announcement by CVS, one of the largest drug store chains in the United States, that it will cease selling tobacco by October this year will have Coles' and Woolworths' public relations in a spin.

While CVS is a “pharmacy” that finally decided selling tobacco is incongruent with being a health service provider, it is also a typical US drug store/grocery store where you can buy breakfast cereal, washing powder, yogurt, canned goods and croissants, similar to Coles and Woolworths.

Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, on the other hand want to be more like CVS, by opening in-store pharmacies when the current ban on supermarket drug dispensing is lifted.

So, savvy supermarket PR departments will be weighing responses to the inevitable questions that will now be put to Coles and Woolworths: are you considering following CVS' lead and ending the sale of tobacco in your stores?

Coles has previously responded with silence to estimates that their sale of around 2.3 billion cigarettes each year is enough to kill more than 1,600 Australians and cause tobacco-related medical costs of over A$300 million a year. The sales equate to about a A$30,000 profit on each life lost to cigarettes.

Woolworths has a slightly larger share of the grocery market and likely a larger health impact.

Will the supermarkets respond this time? It would be carnage to put up a CEO to defend the indefensible in a live interview, so a media release will probably attempt to differentiate the supermarket giants from CVS and repeat the standard phrase: “tobacco is a legal product that our adult customers choose to enjoy."

They may seek to frame the CVS move as a “commercial decision” rather than a “moral or ethical decision”. But this doesn’t stack up. CVS estimates it will lose US$2 billion in revenue a year by not selling cigarettes.

Besides, the Coles or Woolworths websites proclaim pride in their ethical policies. Woolworths does not use animal testing in its own brand products, for example. This is great. Woolworths' corporate responsibility strategy is, after all, about “Doing the Right Thing”.

There was a time when cigarettes were tested on animals. Woolworths do not test cigarettes on animals, they sell them to people. This is probably an unfair comparison because cigarettes have already been proven to cause cancer, unlike genetically modified foods, which Woolworths will just not sell.

Meanwhile, Coles attempts to offset its cancer debt from cigarettes by selling daffodils on Daffodil Day.

Perhaps they will simply argue that removing cigarettes from sale is the thin end of the wedge: are chocolates and soft drinks next?

Putting aside that tobacco is the only product that Coles and Woolworths sell that kills their customers when used exactly as intended and is highly addictive, this is not a ban but a matter of corporate choice. And it’s a choice that CVS and Aldi have already made.

A note to Coles and Woolworths: the clock is ticking to end the sale of tobacco in your stores.