David Hoppe

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:: CVS dumps tobacco

The change is cultural

by David Hoppe

When I smoked, the witching hour, that time of night when the very notion of willpower amounts to a deluded giggle at the end of an empty hall, struck as soon as I realized my last cigarette was gone.

Futility is an empty pack of smokes, crumpled in your fist. But if you’re a nicotine addict, this is a gesture of resolve. You’ve just found out that you’re surrounded, there’s enemy on all sides, but to hell with that. You know what to do.

Buy another pack.

Just don’t bother making a run to CVS. The drugstore chain has eliminated tobacco products from its shelves. Short term, this figures to be a $2 billion hit to its bottom line. CVS, though, figures this move will pay off in the long run. It has rebranded itself CVS Health (never mind its junk food and liquor sales) and plans on partnering with a variety of other health care providers.

The news of CVS’s tobacco ban came and went without much fanfare. “What took them so long?” seemed like the prevailing attitude.

Which, I guess, is the way cultural history usually unfolds. Something once unthinkable eventually turns into yet another anticlimax.

It wasn’t that long ago, less than one person’s lifetime, when doctors (at least they claimed to be doctors) advertised cigarettes. “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette,” proclaimed one magazine ad.

Smoking, the ad implied, was good for you. This was great, because smoking was cool.

Cool people, in fact, were constantly smoking. Athletes did it. Gil Hodges of the Brooklyn Dodgers was pictured in Life magazine smoking in front of his locker during the 1956 World Series. So did world leaders. Franklin Roosevelt was rarely seen without his trusty cigarette holder. And as for movie stars and other entertainers: the original version of Ocean’s Eleven, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the so-called Rat Pack, was practically a nicotine orgy as the actors went out of their way to light up in every scene.

Meanwhile, back in the lab, scientists were finding a different story. In 1957, the U.S. Public Health Service declared a causal connection between smoking and lung cancer. In 1965, Congress ordered health warnings put on cigarette packs. Arizona became the first state to designate separate smoking areas in public places in 1973.

Privately, tobacco companies acknowledged the dangers of their products. Publicly, though, they claimed the science was inconclusive and that filtering devices could make smoking safer.

Fat chance. People kept dying.

Eventually a tipping point was reached and smoking wasn’t cool any more. That smell, which everyone had somehow managed to ignore for generations — in their clothes, on their breath, in their hair — became offensive.

Now it’s hard to find a place where smoking is OK. Anti-smoking ordinances, rather than driving change are more often reflections of a larger public distaste. CVS can walk away from what used to be a profit center.

It makes you wonder: How long before the same thing happens with guns?