CVS Move to Ditch Tobacco Shifts Focus to E-Cigs

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

A woman smoking an e-cigarette

CVS announced Wednesday that the pharmacy will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products in its 7,600 stores by October, a decision that could cost the drug retailer as much as $2 billion in annual sales. The move was cheered by public health advocates and federal officials, including President Barack Obama, a former smoker, who called CVS’s decision a “powerful example.”

But CVS left out another matter entirely: electronic cigarettes. CVS doesn’t currently sell e-cigs—battery powered devices that emit a nicotine vapor instead of smoke—and it stopped notably short of saying whether it would do so in the future, leaving manufacturers in limbo.

CVS’s choice to stay in an e-cig holding pattern until the FDA comes out with new guidance, a process the agency has delayed for months, reflects the current confusion about how to classify electronic cigarettes, which are not medicines like nicotine patches or gum, but aren’t exactly cigarettes either. They don’t fit neatly into either category.

Manufacturers, many of whom believe that their product can help reduce smoking, cheered the CVS move and expressed optimism that pharmacy and others will eventually see their role in reducing smoking. “NJOY applauds CVS Caremark for its courageous decision to go tobacco free” NJOY, a leading independent e-cigarette maker based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said in a statement. “Nearly half a million Americans die every year due to smoking and we believe electronic cigarettes can help end this epidemic.”

Andries Verleur, the CEO of VMR Products, a manufacturer and major online retailer of electronic cigarettes, also applauded CVS. “We believe in the mission to create a tobacco-free generation,” he said. “With this in mind, we are also pleased that CVS will continue to emphasize the importance of alternatives to tobacco and hope that they will ultimately recognize the impact of electronic cigarettes, which do not contain tobacco, in this category.”

Stanton Glantz, a professor of tobacco control at University of California San Francisco and a vocal foe of cigarettes and e-cigarettes alike, criticized these kinds of public health statements from electronic cigarette companies, none of which have been given FDA permission to market e-cigarettes as cessation aids. “It is also significant that CVS does not sell e-cigarettes and will not sell them until the FDA provides some ‘guidance,'” Glantz wrote on his blog. “This is another responsible act, since not a single e-cigarette company has submitted an application to market c-cigarettes as either smoking cessation aids or reduced risk products, despite aggressively promoting these claims.”

For now, CVS has elected to wait and see, spokesman Michael DeAngelis wrote in an email: “We wouldn’t speculate on how the FDA will decide about this product. We will evaluate once their decision is made.”