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US drugstore giant CVS to stop selling cigarettes

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The second largest US drugstore chain, CVS, announced Wednesday it will soon quit selling cigarettes, a decision President Barack Obama hailed as a "powerful example."

CVS said its 7,600 stores across the country will cease tobacco sales by October 1, despite the projected $2 billion revenue loss the move will entail each year.

Larry Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, described the decision as "the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health."

"Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose," he said in a statement.

CVS is the first national US pharmacy chain to take such dramatic action to discourage smoking, although some other major retailers like Target have already stopped cigarette sales.

In the United States, there was an outpouring of support for the move from politicians, doctors and public health groups, even as some warned it would not make a big dent in smoking rates which have stagnated at around one in five Americans in recent years.

Elsewhere in the developed world, cigarettes are not typically sold in pharmacies alongside health remedies and medications.

Smoking still a top killer in US

Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of premature death in the United States, killing nearly half a million Americans each year, health experts say.

Some 18 percent of Americans now smoke, down from 42 percent in the 1960s.

The Obama administration this week stepped up efforts to discourage youths from smoking via a new national advertising campaign.

"As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example," said Obama, who has been known to smoke in the past.

"Today's decision will help advance my administration's efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs."

Obama said business leaders at CVS "helped make a choice that will have a profoundly positive impact on the health of our country."

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has reportedly been a major influence in helping her husband kick the habit, also thanked CVS.

"Now we can all breathe a little easier, and our families can live healthier," she tweeted.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said "taking these products off the store shelves will save lives."

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, known for raising cigarette taxes during his tenure in the Big Apple, said CVS's decision "sets a new bar."

"No responsible pharmacy should put cigarettes behind the counter," he said.

Primarily a US problem

Just last month, the United States marked the 50th anniversary of the first surgeon general's report warning that smoking caused lung cancer.

Since then, the habit has been attributed to 13 kinds of cancer and a host of other diseases, including liver and colon cancer, blindness and diabetes.

Health experts have long questioned the practice by retail pharmacies of offering remedies aimed at improving health, while at the same selling cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco products.

"This is primarily a US problem: pharmacies in other developed countries do not sell cigarettes," wrote Troyen Brennan, chief medical officer of CVS Caremark and Steven Schroeder of the University of California, San Francisco, in an editorial Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"This action may not lead many people to stop smoking; smokers will probably simply go elsewhere to buy cigarettes," they added.

"But if other retailers follow this lead, tobacco products will become much more difficult to obtain."

The leading US doctors' group also welcomed the CVS decision.

"We are hopeful that CVS's decision to end the sale of tobacco products will spur other pharmacies to follow suit," said a statement from the American Medical Association.

Walgreens, the largest US drugstore chain, said it is "continuing to evaluate the choice of products our customers want."

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