PORTLAND, Maine — Brunswick native Ryan Grady bought his first pack of cigarettes at a CVS store. But Grady, who quit after 10 years of smoking, now says he supports the pharmacy giant’s decision to stop selling tobacco products.
“I applaud their efforts to promote health over a guaranteed profit,” Grady said Thursday.
CVS Caremark Corp., by some metrics the nation’s largest drugstore chain, made waves Wednesday by announcing it will take tobacco products off the shelves of its nearly 7,600 stores by October.
There are 22 CVS stores in Maine, including five in Portland and two each in Augusta and Lewiston.
By quitting tobacco sales, the company is reportedly giving up about $2 billion in annual revenues, a huge amount to everyday Mainers, but one that won’t exactly bankrupt the $130 billion-per-year chain.
While CVS captured recent headlines with the move, some smaller Maine retailers have been spurning cigarettes for years.
Michael Fiori, founder of the now-defunct Downeast Pharmacy chain, said his drugstores were the first in the country to pull tobacco products when they eliminated cigarettes, alcohol and violent-themed toys from their shelves in 1993.
Joe Bruno, president and CEO of Community Pharmacies, said his company similarly gave up tobacco and alcohol sales 14 years ago.
Adam Nappi of Freeport’s Bow Street Market said although his store is losing cigarette sales because of his decision last month to drop tobacco products, it’s gaining customers.
“I’d say on balance our feedback has been 99-to-1 positive,” Nappi said. “We’ve had folks coming in from the region who said they’d been occasional customers, who have become frequent customers because of the stance we took.”
“[CVS] will have huge losses, but they’ll be offset, and I think it will be offset quickly,” Fiori said.
Bruno, who also serves as the chairman of the Dirigo Health board of trustees, said tobacco sales “really didn’t make sense in our business model.”
“I don’t know how any pharmacy can sit there and sell liquor and tobacco and still claim to be a health care organization,” he said. “As a pharmacist, you can’t sell someone their asthma inhaler while they’re picking up their carton of cigarettes.”
Unlike the Maine-based Downeast and Community pharmacies, though, CVS isn’t swearing off alcohol sales.
That’s causing some to question the pharmacy giant’s claims it’s dropping tobacco products simply because of concerns for customers’ health.
“What it feels like — what it has always felt like — is that smokers are once again society’s scapegoats. The focus on poor health always falls on the tobacco user,” said Jan Johnson, a representative of the Lovell-based Citizens Freedom Alliance, formerly known as The Smoker’s Club.
Johnson noted that CVS still sells heavily sweetened sodas, junk food and alcohol, which are known to contribute to serious and expensive health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
“When we start drawing a line at tobacco, where does it stop?” Johnson said. “If it is indeed to remove unhealthy products from a place where health is the focus, perhaps CVS should only carry whole grain bread, nonalcoholic beverages and high-fiber snack foods — or ideally fresh fruit, dairy and vegetables only.”
Amy Gagnon, an Auburn resident, said cigarettes can’t be lumped in with sodas, candies and chips, because the nicotine in smokes is addictive.
“No one ever died from a chocolate addiction,” Gagnon said. “One can eat less and change their diet to fight obesity — not so easy with cancer.”
Other Maine shoppers said they support the CVS decision, even if it is somewhat of a publicity stunt.
“I appreciate the public stand, even if it’s a marketing ploy,” said Sabrina Murphy of Yarmouth.
Several Massachusetts municipalities, including Boston, have banned tobacco sales in pharmacies.
Ed Miller, spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast, based in Augusta, said his organization supported the municipal bans and believes they helped pharmacies get comfortable with the idea. He called the CVS decision “brave.”
“I would suspect that they took a look at the numbers that they got from their Boston stores when they made this decision, and I don’t think it would take too many people changing their prescriptions over to CVS to make up for that $2 billion loss,” Miller said.