CVS and cigarettes, an embarrassing Rorschach test

by Carl V Phillips

Presumably anyone who reads in this area is already aware that the CVS drug store chain announced that they will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products.  The practical consequences of this are almost nil, but the response to it are rather educational.  It is a veritable Rorschach test (though not exactly the same, since no one seems to have said “it looks like a butterfly” or likened the announcement to some bit of the female anatomy).

The immediate practical consequences of the move are:  (a) CVS will lose $2 billion/year in revenue, by their own estimate; (b) some smokers will have to make an extra stop if they want to buy both toothpaste and cigarettes; (c) C-stores and other competitors will thus gain about $2 billion/year in revenue; (d) some C-store may also increase their profit margin on cigarettes because they no longer have to price-compete with a nearby CVS.  It is probably also the case that: (e) tobacco companies will increase their profits a bit because CVS’s size allowed it to negotiate better wholesale prices for cigarettes than their average competitor.

Of course, none of those could possibly be the motive for the decision.  To the extent that I have seen cogent explanations of the motives, it appears to have happened because CVS’s biggest cash cow and growth area is not retail, but providing insurance-like services to big companies.  Apparently their clients and potential clients (presumably strong-armed by the tobacco control industry) pressured CVS into making the move.  Assuming this is true, it was a symbolic gesture in which they decided to take something away from their peon retail customers in order to please (not even materially benefit) their big corporate customers who offer much bigger margins.

Of course, that is not how they spun it to the public.  It very convenient when you can spin a sacrifice you are forced to make (in order to get some benefit) as a good thing in itself rather than a price paid.  So, of course, CVS claimed exactly that in their (transparently false) public statements — it was a principled decision because they did not feel that people should be buying cigarettes the same place they are buying medicines.

The most obvious hypocrisy in that spin has been pointed out by pretty much every commentator on the topic, even those that know little about tobacco:  CVS sells — right up front in their most prominent displays — unhealthy snack foods, “energy drinks”, candy, and so on, so this is clearly not about removing products because they are unhealthy.  A more sophisticated take on the hypocrisy comes from the observation that they are removing not just cigarettes, but smokeless tobacco.  If this were really about health, they would have kept the latter and steered would-be cigarette purchasers to this low-risk alternative.

What is most interesting, however, is how the tobacco control industry went gaga over this move that had only symbolic consequences.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation added it to their animated timeline of the most important moments in the history of tobacco control (and apparently did so within minutes of CVS’s announcement — not that this proves that the surprise announcement was actually an orchestrated conspiracy or anything).  Then @RWJF_PubHealth tweeted about this addition approximate once per hour, and even paid to promote the tweets (must be nice to be able to pay to get people to look whenever you update your website).

The Rorschach test tells us the tobacco control industry is so starved for anything they can call a victory that they celebrate this useless gesture.  They are beside themselves with delight that smokers who are shopping at CVS will now have to go cleeear to the nearest C-store to buy cigarettes. To the present generation of tobacco controllers, this is all they can add to the list that includes such genuinely important moments as the 1964 Surgeon General report, the groundbreaking epidemiology on smoking from the 1950s, and….  Well, actually those are really the only things that ought to appear on a story of the great moments in anti-smoking.

Of course, that RWJF timeline is not actually about successes of tobacco control (i.e., events that reduced smoking), but successes of the the tobacco control industry (i.e., events that demonstrated and/or increased their power and wealth, or inflicted punishment on tobacco users for their sins, even though almost all were inconsequential in terms of reducing smoking).  In that sense, I suppose, this was a victory for them.

While desperation for something to claim as a victory, along with boasting about their ability to exercise power, probably explain most of the TCI reaction, to some extent it is genuine innumeracy (albeit intentionally-cultivated — i.e., lie-based — innumeracy).  Notice that the above list of consequences of CVS’s move did not include “there will be less smoking”.  This is because of the obvious fact that one fewer retailer of cigarettes has absolutely no effect on the demand for cigarettes, and it is the demand that matters.  Or, as I tweeted about it, “#CVSQuits selling cigarettes. Tobacco controllers demonstrate their continued failure to understand supply is not demand by celebrating.”

Part of the core myth of tobacco control is that there is no demand for tobacco, and that the reason people consume it basically demonic possession.  So, the “reasoning” goes, since demand is not causing consumption — contrary to what anyone with a modicum of knowledge about economics or human beings would conclude — then it must be supply.  Ergo, eliminate some of the supply and you eliminate some of the consumption.

But it is not just the TCI who saw what they wanted to in CVS’s move.  NJOY and other e-cigarette companies, as well as many vapers, celebrated this as a victory for e-cigarettes.  Huh?  There are some reports that CVS specifically promised they would also not sell e-cigarettes after the removal date, though there are also contrary reports on this point.  But either way, the fact that they are removing low-risk tobacco products along with cigarettes does not exactly suggest that they will be restocking the back wall with a different low-risk tobacco product.  Moreover, it is not as if the TCI bullies who leveraged this move in the first place are going to let up on e-cigarettes, and so CVS will probably be pressured into not selling them either.  E-cigarette merchants and cheerleaders need to figure out that each restriction on cigarettes should be interpreted not as “more for us”, but as “you’re next”.

Indeed, the backlash resulting from a (very hypothetical) principled stand by CVS — were they to insist that e-cigarettes are pro-health and therefore they are going to sell them — would probably be increased as a result of them already caving on cigarettes.  Once you cave to someone’s political pressure — giving up billions in revenue to get some goodwill — they own you.  The revenue is gone, but they can still take away the good will that justified the loss, and so they have even more power over you than they did before.

So while it is possible that CVS will be stocking e-cigarettes instead, it seems ridiculously optimistic to assume they will, or even to conclude that it is more likely to happen given the removal of cigarettes than would be the case had they kept them.  And this is to say nothing of the fact that it is better to have e-cigarettes displayed next to where people are buying their cigarettes so they might spontaneously choose to try the former.  Bottom line:  What some elements of the e-cigarette community saw in the inkblot also suggests they suffer from some of the same problematic thinking as the TCI — not nearly as badly, for sure, but remarkably similar.

The final category of reaction I will note is that of every single smoker who was quoted in the mandatory “we asked this random shopper” section of news reports about the move.  Unsurprisingly, the reaction was basically, “Really? Oh well, I guess I will have to buy my cigarettes somewhere else.”  There were barely even any hints of annoyance.  You could almost hear the subtext: “My dry cleaner does not sell cigarettes. My bank does not sell them, nor does McDonalds.  Now my usual drug store won’t either.  But so what?  It is not like I can’t go to a gas station / 7-11 / other drug store / etc.”  In this population — the people who know best, after all — it never even crossed their mind that change in one source of supply would have any effect on demand.

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5 responses to “CVS and cigarettes, an embarrassing Rorschach test

  1. Thanks Carl! Great analysis overall, and I particularly liked the catch on this:

    “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation added it to their animated timeline of the most important moments in the history of tobacco control (and apparently did so within minutes of CVS’s announcement — not that this proves that the surprise announcement was actually an orchestrated conspiracy or anything).”

    Evidently Obama came out with some sort of supportive note VERY quickly as well. A lot more quickly than he reacted to Benghazi etc. I guess that says something about priorities, eh?

    This also stood out: “Then @RWJF_PubHealth tweeted about this addition approximate once per hour, and even paid to promote the tweets (must be nice to be able to pay to get people to look whenever you update your website).”

    And your note about the vapers and e-cigs was right on the money as well, though I’m hoping that maybe you saw reactions from a minority within the e-cig community. I’ve seen a lot of support for smokers growing there as they’ve realized the whole “You’re Next” scenario (or, as I’m sure many of them, particularly any who’ve gotten arrested on airplanes etc, have noticed, “You’re RIGHT NOW TOO BUDDY!”

    – MJM

  2. Pingback: CVS And Cigarettes, An Embarrassing Rorschach Test • The Spinfuel News Blog

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