This past week, CVS Pharmacy cleared its stores of all cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and smokeless tobacco. In conjunction with this, the company has announced plans to change its name to CVS Health. While CVS’s decision to eliminate tobacco from its shelves is a bummer for smokers looking for convenience, it is not such a big victory for the anti-tobacco contingent. It changes CVS’s position on smoking, but it ultimately does not affect the issue of tobacco use any more than it inconveniences current smokers.
CVS’s change suggests a company rebranding itself rather than a cultural paradigm shift. This does not signal any shift in tobacco’s place in society––that “place” exists somewhere we have yet to detect and root out. Despite anti-smoking ads and mandating people to take their smokes outside, smoking still persists.
The media’s depiction of tobacco use helps to perpetuate its usage in the real world. Despite a perceived shift in cultural opinion, tobacco is continually introduced in television and movies. Today’s youth learn a lot about how to manage stress and emotions through the media and may have learned something from Don Draper––like what it means to puff on a cigarette in the face of stress and intensity in our uncontrollable lives.
This change will leave over 7,000 neighborhood pharmacies without tobacco products and marks a considerable shift in tobacco availability. The notion that one of the country’s leading pharmacies can remove an item of such high demand from its shelves and proceed with a bold health-centered plan might suggest a shift in our cultural opinion on tobacco, but the truth has far less to do with the waning popularity of tobacco and more to do with CVS’s public image.
It would be blatantly hypocritical for a company with the word “health” in its name to sling tobacco products. The company’s decision to halt tobacco sales is merely a symptom of its rebranding. People will continue to buy cigarettes elsewhere with little to no impact on the tobacco companies that manufacture them.
Another way to conceptualize tobacco’s permanence in our culture is to imagine that tobacco products never entered the mark, that life in America continued to develop and remained the same in every other relevant way. Then in 2014, a young entrepreneur came onto the scene and introduced a product along with the knowledge we have now. In our health-conscious society, cigarettes would never catch on. Yet for those who grew up with it and those who choose to experiment, tobacco remains popular. Smokers are aware of the risks associated with tobacco use, but because of either addiction or free will, continue to smoke.
CVS’s action is noble and they are commendable for willingly taking losses in the name of enhancing public health. Hopefully, more corner pharmacies will make efforts to follow CVS’s model. But tobacco products as we know them are not going anywhere. America is still addicted––even when we are told to smoke outside or around the corner, out of the sight and mind of our healthiest efforts.