The move by the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain to remove tobacco products from its stores can only be good news for the state with the second-highest rate of smokers in the nation, according to West Virginia health professionals.
On Wednesday, CVS Health, formerly CVS Caremark, announced that it had pulled tobacco products from the shelves of its 7,600 pharmacy locations nationwide. There are 50 CVS stores in West Virginia, according to its website, including two in Charleston, four in Huntington and four in Parkersburg.
“CVS’s corporate stance is one that now positions them to be more responsible in regard to health,” said Bruce Adkins, director of the Division of Tobacco Prevention for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health. “They are a major provider in the United States and in West Virginia, and they’re a health-care company, so their corporate stance is that they want to promote health.”
According to Rahul Gupta, chief health officer of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and co-author of a recent paper centered on smoking rates in the Mountain State, CVS’s decision is just a piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important one.
“This is a starting step. When the second-largest chain of pharmacies starts to take pro-health steps like this, they’re sending a message to not only their competitors, but to consumers,” Gupta said. “This is the right thing to do.”
Despite progress made across the country to curtail smoking rates in recent years, West Virginia’s percentage of smokers has remained relatively constant. The national smoking rate declined from 20 percent to 12.3 percent of the population between 1995 and 2010; West Virginia’s smoking rate in 1995 was 23.7 percent, and decreased slightly in 2005, to 21.3, before returning to roughly 23 percent in 2010.
The comparatively low tax rate West Virginia places on tobacco products might be another piece of that puzzle, Gupta said. The state was ranked 43rd in the nation for its tobacco taxation rate, at 55 cents for one pack of cigarettes. In comparison, New York state, which has the highest taxation rate, charges $4.35 for every pack, according to the Tax Foundation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Best Practices guidelines for 2014 recommend that funding for West Virginia’s tobacco prevention and control efforts total about $27.4 million annually. Currently, funding for these programs is less than a quarter of that — not quite $6.3 million.
West Virginia contributes nearly $5 million of the smoking-cessation funding from its general fund. The rest comes from the CDC. In fiscal 2014, which spanned July 1, 2013, to June 30 of this year, the state collected more than $101 million in taxes on tobacco products, according to the State Budget Office. The CDC’s Best Practices recommendations and a report from the U.S. surgeon general suggest raising tobacco prices as a means of curbing addiction, Adkins said.
“We know that one of the problems we have, as well as several other states in the South and Appalachia, is that we all have low tobacco prices,” he said. “Increased prices are documented to help young people to never start using, and certainly, to push people to quit.”
Gupta said the argument that an increase in the tobacco tax would equal a loss in revenue for the state isn’t a sufficient excuse to avoid it. CVS projected that it will lose about $2 billion annually by dropping tobacco products, according to The Washington Post.
“For those who say the taxation of tobacco may cause reduction in revenue for the state — so will CVS’s cutting tobacco,” Gupta said. “I think the way things are going overall is in the direction of effectively reducing tobacco use across populations in the nation. An impactful tobacco tax would be another factor that would help that.”
CVS Chief Health Officer Troy Brennan predicted that, if pharmacies across the country banned tobacco sales, tobacco-related deaths could drop by 25,000 to 60,000 each year, according to Politico. More than 3,800 West Virginians die each year from smoking-related causes, according to Adkins, and the state loses nearly $2 billion yearly in productivity losses and health-care costs related to tobacco use.
“The last thing they want to be doing as a health-care corporation is selling a product that worsens health and is documented to make people gravely ill with long-term use,” Adkins said.
Erin Snyder, health policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said West Virginia needs a more comprehensive policy to address smoking rates if it hopes to lower its rate of tobacco use.
“Expanding some of those policies and adopting some of the policies that other states have,” she said, “would show West Virginia has a commitment to public health.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.