Time for Walgreens to Drop Bad Tobacco Habit

Posted: 2/2/2017

After decades of selling cigarettes and other tobacco-based products, the drugstore chain Walgreens Boots Alliance should screw up some corporate courage and finally kick the habit.

Like beating any addiction, it won't be easy for the Deerfield-based chain to go cold turkey. After all, Walgreens has grown dependent on these lucrative products and justifies selling the stuff, which medical experts have linked to causing cancer, as being an homage to free enterprise and a mark of respect for "consumer choice."

But Walgreens is fooling itself if it thinks selling coffin nails and the like from behind the checkout counter is in the public interest.

Moreover, hawking tobacco isn't even good business anymore, because it corrosively undermines Walgreens' avowed global mission to be a premier health care provider that cares, first and foremost, about the well-being of its many prescription and drugstore customers.

"Walgreens plays an integral role in the delivery system of health care, so it's deeply disappointing that it continues to sell tobacco products," says Joel Africk, president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago.

Disenchantment with Walgreens' tobacco selling strategy has been burning for years.

It is a recurring theme at the company's shareholder meetings, where activists have repeatedly pleaded with, or chided, top management to rethink the policy. As the Tribune reported, during last month's annual meeting comments urging the end of the practice dominated the Q&A session.

The best response shareholder activists got from the brass (and which was reiterated in an email Walgreens sent to me) were bromides about taking the issue "seriously" and that the sale of tobacco products is something that's always up for reconsideration.

Well, there's no time like the present to do the right thing.

After all, it has been over 50 years since the debut of a U.S. Surgeon General's report linking smoking tobacco to ill health. The list has grown to include: lung cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other grave ailments.

Moreover, damage isn't confined to whoever lights one up. Secondhand smoke can affect others, including children.

With the exception of hardcore deniers, you're pressed to find those who don't believe there's a connection between smoking and a plethora of health hazards.

Walgreens' sheer size — it has over 8,200 drugstores in the U.S. and will have more should it succeed in acquiring the competing Rite Aid chain — only adds butane to the smoking crisis.

A vast majority of smokers want to quit but being able to buy tobacco from the ubiquitous neighborhood drugstore makes stopping incredibly tough, contend Africk and other anti-smoking experts.

That sort of gives another meaning to being "at the corner of happy and healthy," as the Walgreens ad slogan goes.

So how can a company that promotes wellness checks, health care centers, flu and immunization shots and other preventive actions still market such deadly products?

Naturally, it comes down to money.

That's because buying tobacco, especially cigarettes, is an impulse buy on steroids, retail experts say.

On top of getting a pack of cigarettes, a customer will, at the same time, typically purchase two or three other items. Pick up a $14 pack of smokes and then throw in a six-pack of beer, food, gum or maybe a package of Tic Tac mints to sweeten up sour smoker's breath.

Collectively, it adds up to billions in sales.

In late 2014, Walgreens' nemesis, CVS Health, decided to stop selling tobacco products at its stores (the change coincided with a name switch from CVS Caremark to CVS Health).

By its own admission, the ban initially hurt CVS' 2015 nonpharmacy sales to the tune of $2 billion, a fraction of its estimated $150 billion in revenue that year, but still a hit.

Since then, the company's pharmacy and retail sales have rebounded.

While it took a little time to regroup from that sudden sales shock, I'd argue that CVS' tough tobacco call will yield many long-term benefits with health care partners and customers because of the greater credibility it brings to its corporate brand and reputation.

Despite harping about giving its customers more choice, I get the impression that Walgreens knows it should stop selling this stuff but just isn't ready to go all the way.

In some stores, the chain has reduced the visibility of cigarettes and tobacco while also turning over a smattering of former cigarette shelf space to smoking cessation products.

These are, at best, half-measures.

I understand that it's easy for me to tell Walgreens to drop a profitable business line, take the painful short-term hit and move on.

But if Walgreens is determined to be a dominant global health care retailer, then its business model has to be strong enough to get beyond the uncomfortable withdrawal symptom brought on by losing tobacco-related sales.

You know, breaking a bad habit is never easy.

But it's time for Walgreens to end its dependence on tobacco and cigarettes.

roreed@chicagotribune.com

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