At the Corner of Happy & Hypocrititical: Why Is the Nation's Largest Drugstore Chain Still Selling Cigarettes?

Date01 August 2018
AuthorLowes, Robert

Recently, I called Osborn Drugs, a local pharmacy in Miami, Oklahoma, and asked how much it charged for Marlboros. "We don't sell cigarettes," the clerk replied. "We're a pharmacy."

Call most of the 10,000 pharmacies operated by Walgreens in the United States, however, and you'll get the price of a pack. The nations largest pharmacy chain "at the corner of happy and healthy' as its former tagline proclaimed, sells hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and electronic cigarettes each year.

That's a lot of unhealthy. Smoking, while on the decline, is the nation's top cause of preventable death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since the Surgeon General declared smoking a health hazard in 1964, twenty million Americans have died prematurely of lung cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other smoking-related diseases for which Walgreens fills prescriptions. The death toll is roughly 500,000 people each year, or 1,300 each day, including victims of second-hand smoke.

Walgreens is officially against smoking.

"Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health," the company states on its website. Walgreens on Tumblr lists the chemicals in cigarettes and known health effects under the headline, "Here's why you should quit today."

Walgreens (officially Walgreens Boots Alliance following its 2014 merger with a European pharmacy chain) sells nicotine patches and gum, and directs smokers to its pharmacists and 400 or so in-store clinics for additional help. That's laudable. Yet the sight of cigarettes next to nicotine patches behind the checkout counter vexes public health experts. For a smoker, just looking at packs of Marlboros can trigger impulse purchases, thwarting the anti-smoking advice from a pharmacist.

Walgreens "finds itself in a hypocritical place," says Douglas Luke, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies tobacco control. "Cigarettes are the only products that will kill you if used as directed."

True enough, the candy, soda, potato chips, and other junk food on Walgreens' shelves pose their own health risks. "The difference is, there's no safe level of tobacco use," says Dr. Shannon Udovic-Constant, vice chair of the California Medical Association, which has campaigned for tobacco-free pharmacies since the 1990s.

Everyone from the American Medical Association to the CDC wants Walgreens to kick the habit. CVS Health, Walgreens' biggest competitor among pharmacy chains, pulled tobacco from its 8,100 stores in 2014. Two-thirds of American adults, including almost half of current smokers, agree that cigarettes don't belong in drugstores, according to a 2016 survey published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. A growing number of cities require pharmacies to be tobacco-free.

An intransigent Walgreens continues to defend tobacco sales with arguments that provoke chuckles from anti-smoking advocates and researchers who spoke to me for this article. Sample argument: We respect the choices of our smoking customers. Expert rebuttal: It's not about smokers choosing to indulge--they're addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes. Seventy percent of the thirty-eight million Americans who smoke want to quit.

Claiming to respect smokers' freedom of choice is "an old tobacco industry tactic," says Lisa Henriksen, a tobacco regulation expert at Stanford University.

Walgreens executives say they regularly review the tobacco issue. They've even removed the deadly products from the shelves of seventeen stores in...

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