CVS, Tobacco, & Well-Done PR Moves

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.

CVS, Tobacco, & Well-Done PR Moves

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.

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