When CVS announced its plans to ban cigarette sales in 2014, the media took note. It was one of the most widely covered corporate social responsibility stories in recent memory – and for good reason. CVS’s choice was bold, risky and scrutinized by many.
Two years later, CVS’s commitment to curbing tobacco use hasn’t wavered – quite the contrary, in fact. The company recently launched Be The First , a $50 million initiative to help deliver the first tobacco-free generation.
As senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy for CVS Health, and president of the CVS Health Foundation, Eileen Howard Boone has been instrumental in shaping and evolving the company’s tobacco prevention initiatives. We sat down with her to find out more about Be the First and lessons learned from the initial ban in 2014.
Can you give us an overview of your role and explain how CSR is structured at CVS?
I have a role at CVS Health that is both challenging and rewarding at the same time. I’m responsible for formulating the strategic positioning of the company’s corporate social responsibility platform, which we call our Prescription for a Better World. Our work is organized across three focus areas: building healthier communities, protecting the planet and creating economic opportunities. In this role, I also direct more than $80 million in charitable funding for philanthropic programs that support the company’s purpose of helping people on their path to better health. Ultimately, our goal is to increase access to health care for underserved populations, improve quality of care and patient outcomes, and reduce costs on the health care system.
Tell us about CVS’s new initiative, Be The First .
We are at a critical moment in our nation’s efforts to end the epidemic of tobacco use, which is the leading cause of preventable death, and threatens the health and well-being of our next generation. Be The First is a five-year, $50 million initiative to help deliver the first tobacco-free generation, and advances CVS Health’s broader commitment to helping people lead tobacco-free lives.
Be The First consists of comprehensive education, advocacy, tobacco control and healthy behavior programming that is delivered by a group of national partner organizations and directed at youth and young adults who use tobacco or are at risk of becoming tobacco users. It is also focused on continuing to support cessation programs for entrenched adult smokers who expose children to tobacco use in the home or in public venues that still permit tobacco-use.
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Given our size and scale, we’re bringing additional resources and capabilities to the public health community and working collaboratively with our expert partners to help those who smoke to quit and to ensure that those who don’t smoke ever start. We believe our initiative can have a meaningful impact on the health of our country and move us one step closer to delivering the first tobacco-free generation as measured by: a 10% decline in the number of new youth smokers; a doubling of the number of tobacco-free educational institutions; and a 3% decline in the national youth smoking rate.
CVS made headlines when it decided to make stores tobacco-free in 2014. Why did the company decide to tackle this issue? It was a risky move; was it challenging to gain buy-in internally?
As a purpose driven company, we knew that removing cigarettes and other tobacco products from our stores was simply the right thing to do for the good of our customers, our colleagues and our company. We are proud to be the first, and to remain the only, national pharmacy chain to take this step in helping people on their path to better health. I am so proud of our company and believe we will continue to look back on our exit from tobacco as a truly seminal moment in our company’s history, evolution and continued success.
It’s been almost two years since the ban was announced. Can you tell us about its impact? Any lessons learned?
On the one-year anniversary of when we officially removed tobacco from stores, we released data demonstrating the positive impact our decision had made on public health overall. The study, conducted by the CVS Health Research Institute, evaluated cigarette pack purchases at other various retailers in the eight months after CVS Pharmacy stopped selling tobacco products. The data showed a one percent reduction in cigarette pack sales in states where CVS Pharmacy had a 15 percent or greater share of the retail pharmacy market, compared to states with no CVS Pharmacy stores. Over the same eight-month period, the average smoker in these states purchased five fewer cigarette packs and, in total, approximately 95 million fewer packs were sold.
Our move also motivated hundreds of thousands of smokers to seek out our pharmacists for cessation counseling and therapy, which we continue to report on. From a philanthropic standpoint, we also made the commitment to help people lead tobacco-free lives and have invested several million dollars in support for partners helping people to quit smoking and ensuring that those who don’t never start.
Our own actions as a company to eliminate the sale of tobacco products in our retail stores and our philanthropic support showed that we could have an impact on smoking rates nationally, but there was more that we could do. This is what inspired us to develop and implement our Be The First initiative.
How do you think CSR has changed in recent years, both in terms of CVS’s approach and general industry trends?
Nearly 10 years ago, our company embarked on a journey to formally define and shape our approach to CSR. We have come a long way, and we are driven by a strong belief that our purpose of helping people on their path to better heath is not just about social and environmental responsibility, but also a way to align with our long-term growth plans and key business objectives. We are fortunate to have a wide circle of key stakeholders who care about CVS Health and actively encourage us to advance our CSR commitments.
Engagement is the key to maintaining and strengthening these relationships. Our CSR strategy continues to play a bigger and more significant role in supporting our business, while delivering more value and impact to the customers and communities we serve.