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Leslie Pascaud: Stubbing Out the Habit Loop—Why Stopping Cigarette Sales in October Could Be Key to CVS's Success

By Leslie Pascaud, EVP Branding and Sustainable Innovation, Added Value

CVS’s game-changing pledge to stop selling cigarettes and tobacco made global headlines after it was announced on Wednesday morning. Its ambitious statement shows them to be putting purpose into the heart of their brand, drawing the nation’s attention to their bold vision to ‘reinvent pharmacy to help people on their path to better health.’ Praised by Obama as ‘setting a powerful example,’ this move has given the previously low profile corporate giant an admirable story to tell as they put the health of the American people front and center at a time when health is on everyone’s radar. 

The bold character of the company’s stance can’t be underemphasized. While selling cigarettes in pharmacies is paradoxical, many of CVS’s 7600 stores currently provide convenience store roles in many towns across the US. Smokers who currently buy cigarettes and other collateral from their local CVS may take all of their purchases elsewhere after October, which means that CVS may see a reduction in their annual sales greater than the $2 billion they currently predict.

Both Walgreens and Rite-Aid have made non-committal statements to the news, professing a need to balance the demands of their customers with their health needs. Most investment analysts predict that the impact of CVS’s move on overall sales of tobacco will be negligible. But this will depend in part on whether CVS and other anti-tobacco advocates fully seize the opportunities that this shifting landscape presents.

The Journal of American Medicine findings show a reduction in tobacco use from 42% to 18% in the past 50 years, but this number has stalled over the past decade. There is data to suggest that decreasing the density of tobacco outlets reduces smoking amongst young people. 69% of adult smokers in the US claim that they would like to quit but many struggle to because addictive behaviors such as smoking are part of habit loops. One key way to change a behavior is to break the habit loop. Removing cigarettes from CVS stores will disrupt their customers’ purchase routine, alter their habit cycle and provide a small window to act on their desire to quit.

This gives CVS the opportunity to become a credible advocate for smoking cessation and a leader in this field within the retail sector. The next 6 months before they pull product off-shelf will be crucial. CVS should begin active conversations with their smoking customers now, helping them to plan for the transition by engaging in new habits. They should heavily promote a wider range of smoking cessation programs and nicotine replacement products within their stores to further support their customers’ long-term needs. As a counterbalance to the Affordable Care act provision allowing employers to charge smokers higher rates for health insurance, they can incentivize customers who successfully complete their antismoking program

Research shows that those who stop smoking for 28 days are 5 times more likely to stay smoke free. So In light of the October deadline for CVS to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, why don’t they sponsor a U.S. initiative similar to the NHS’s Stoptober campaign in the UK? This mass 28-day stop smoking challenge takes place in October because the months between summer barbeques and holiday season parties have been proven to be a previously untapped quitting opportunity. CVS can leverage community and social media to drive behavior change, providing quitters with CaremarkTM packs and a mobile app that sends out motivating texts throughout the month.

By supporting the 23 million smokers annually who want to quit, throughout their journey, CVS will encourage customer loyalty and build brand equity that will hopefully more than fill the short term revenue gap from tobacco sales.  From there, they can move on to the host of other issues for which their clients need help, encouragement and advice so as to truly “reinvent pharmacy to help people on their path to better health.”

With research by Claire Carmichael, a WPP Fellow who is working at Added Value NY during her second rotation on the program.

Leslie Pascaud is head of Added Value’s Sustainable Marketing and Innovation Practice which she launched in 2006 in recognition of the need to reveal the unmet commercial potential for more responsible brands and businesses. Read more of Leslie’s insights here:

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