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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

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.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Campbell

    Scientist (researcherid B-7232-2008)

    I guess Coles won't stop till Woolworths do and vice-versa. If each thought the other was about to they might scramble to make the announcement first.

  2. Arthur White

    logged in via email

    What else will this govt tax to the limit?

  3. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    Yes, it is astonishing that the CVS's corporate decision was seen as such a 'courageous decision' (in the 'Yes, Minister' sense) that it prompted comment by the President and the First Lady. And, while Australians can feel smug that tobacco products -- which are inherently harmful to health -- have not been sold in our pharmacies for decades (and selling these products is officially considered unprofessional behaviour by the Pharmaceutical Association), our pharmacy sector still cannot entirely escape…

    Read more
  4. Jack Ruffin
    Jack Ruffin is a Friend of The Conversation.

    logged in via email

    Cigarettes, where do you start - people legally selling poison to people eager to use it on themselves. The big companies are making fools of us all. Smokers pay with their lives and money while the rest of us pay for a health system that has to cope with so much self inflicted suffering.

  5. Graham Palmer


    I seriously doubt they will do anything, however, the next cab off the rank must be sugar drinks which are fast becoming the next 'tobacco'. The amount and the size of the containers of liquid sugar has increased exponentially in the past 20 years and are causing untold damage to people's health and children in particular.
    The cost of obesity, diabetes and long term health problems are transferred onto the community while corporations profit from the sale of these non foods. The cynicism of the corporations who peddle the stuff is exemplified by the fact that they sell these sugar drinks for less than the bottled water that they also market.
    I expect the response will be the usual arguments about living in a 'nanny state', freedom of choice etc. but we are talking about a contest between unequal parties. The power and the marketing capabilities of corporate juggernauts against the gullibility of the general populace.

  6. Ray Hughes

    IT Worker

    Of course, there remains a big difference between sugar-rich "food" and tobacco products. A joule is not a poison - we need the energy we get from food and it is the excess that is the poison. Admittedly a lolly is a poor source of nutrition: it supplies energy only without being of any other nutritional benefit. But the lolly is not, in itself, toxic and comparing it to a cigarette is a bit of a stretch.

    1. Graham Palmer

      deep sea diver

      In reply to Ray Hughes

      I agree a joule is not poison but mega joules are. I am not talking about lollies I am talking about sugar drinks in multi litre bottles. There are five teaspoons of sugar in a can of Coke and a cup in a two litre bottle. Multiply that per day and you might consider that the body is being poisoned.