The Obamas and CVS on the Same Page About Quitting Smoking

The pharmacy chain and the president are leading an important battle for our country’s health.

CVS store in San Francisco

Today one of the biggest national drugstore chains announced something that would once have been unthinkable: It will cease selling one of its most in-demand items, simply because the company believes that’s the right thing to do.

Sounds hard to believe, right? Sure does. But could CVS Pharmacy’s decision to quit selling cigarettes as of Oct. 1 be a major turning point in our country’s quest to become a healthier America? Absolutely.

CVS Pharmacy announced that it will cease selling tobacco products, like cigarettes, beginning Oct. 1. In discussing the move, the company’s CEO, Larry Merle, said, “The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose of helping people on their path to better health.”

That stance was immediately heralded by President Barack Obama, who has been candid about his own yearslong struggle to kick his smoking habit. “As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example,” he said in a statement, according to Politico. “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.”

And first lady Michelle Obama, who helped the president quit smoking and leads the Let’s Move campaign to encourage physical fitness, signaled her approval by tweeting, “Thanks @CVS_Extra, now we can all breathe a little easier, and our families can live healthier.”

What they didn’t say is just how extraordinary CVS’ move may prove to be for black America. Smoking has had a particularly devastating impact, with African Americans more likely to die from illnesses triggered and exacerbated by smoking. According to the American Lung Association:

In 2008, 25.5 percent of non-Hispanic black men smoked compared to 23.6 percent of non-Hispanic white men. On average, white men tend to consume more cigarettes (about 30-40 percent more) than African-American men. Despite their lower exposure, however, African-American men are 34 percent more likely than white men to develop lung cancer. Black women tend to smoke less than white women, but the two groups have similar lung cancer rates.

To put the impact of smoking on black Americans in even more disturbing context, according to a review of data by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (pdf), “Smoking-related illnesses are the number one cause of death in the black community, surpassing all other causes of death, including AIDS, homicide, diabetes and accidents.” But in recent years, a focus on nutrition and exercise has surpassed eradicating smoking as the health issue captivating politics and policy.

According to an analysis by the nation’s surgeon general, released in the New York Times last month, the number of illnesses that doctors believe to be caused at least in part by smoking has grown significantly. Besides the usual suspects like emphysema and lung cancer, the report cites evidence to conclude that smoking can be tied to diabetes, colorectal cancer, erectile dysfunction, rheumatoid arthritis and even ectopic pregnancy. This means that just like encouraging healthy eating, discouraging smoking remains crucial to improving Americans’ health, particularly in communities of color where smoking among vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women (pdf), is higher than the national average.

Increasing education and limiting access have proved to be two of the most effective ways to combat smoking. Higher education levels are linked to lower smoking rates. As educated populations outside the black community have turned away from smoking over the years, tobacco companies have ramped up targeted advertising toward black populations. By increasing the cost of cigarettes and limiting smoking in public places like bars, Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped lead New York City to one of the biggest declines in smoking ever—from a high of 22 percent in 2002 to 14 percent 10 years later.