CVS exec says ending tobacco sales, which meant $1B for drug store chain, the right thing

A top executive of CVS Caremark said Thursday that ending tobacco sales at CVS drug stores last month was the right thing to do even though the sales brought in $1 billion in revenue.

"How can you be a health care company providing health care and still sell tobacco?" Dr. William Fulcher III, the company's vice president of clinical affairs, asked a medical conference on tobacco research at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Fulcher, a family doctor who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, picked tobacco in the fields of eastern North Carolina when he was a young man.

"This is one activity in which being a quitter is good," for both smokers and for the company, he told doctors gathered at the conference in the No. 5 tobacco-growing state where about 12,000 acres of leaf is grown.

"I'm moderately enthusiastic that other retail companies will come to the same decision," Fulcher added. "This was really an inside job for us. We were committed as a group of clinicians that this was the right thing to do."

CVS Caremark, which handles health insurance, is a division of the company that now goes by the name CVS Health, a name change that occurred as it stopped selling tobacco. Its other divisions are CVS pharmacies, CVS Minute Clinics and the company's specialty pharmacies.

Earlier, doctors heard from Dr. Jonathan Samet, a department chairman at the University of Southern California who was the senior scientific editor on the 2014 Surgeon General's report.

He said during an AP interview that a half-century of the reports have played a key role in reducing the number of people who smoke in the United States.

The first was issued 50 years ago, back in 1964, and concluded that smoking caused lung cancer in men. There was not enough research at the time to draw the same conclusion about women.

"I still remember the release of the '64 report and the headlines and the shock on the part of some people that something that was so engrained in their lives and so pleasurable to them could be so adverse," Samet said.

He said while scientific studies were already being done on the dangers of smoking, the Surgeon General's report put the issue in front of the public. "The reports became the vehicle for saying we need to do something about this," he added.

The conference also heard from John Steffen, the CEO of the American Cancer Society, who said use of tobacco remains a major health challenge.

He noted that an estimated 20 percent of the world's population smokes and smoking is the No. 1 risk factor for all major non-communicable diseases.

"If we don't intervene, it will kill a billion people this century," he warned.