The Surprising Newcomer to the Flagging Fight Against Tobacco Use

Tobacco use is a huge public health problem in the United States, responsible for about one in five deathsmore than 480,000 annual deaths. Since this preventable killer has a devastating impact and an obvious solution (stop smoking!), it’s no wonder that health-conscious funders have sunk big money into anti-smoking efforts.

Former New York mayor and ex-smoker Michael Bloomberg has invested more than $600 million from his deep pockets to fight tobacco. As we wrote last year, the Gates Foundation has given around $150 million since 2007 to global anti-smoking projects. In 2015, Gates and Bloomberg Philanthropies joined forces to launch the Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund, with an initial $4 million budget to help countries considering tobacco-control laws.

There’s nothing surprising about the involvement of two staunch anti-smoking advocates leading the fight against tobacco. What is unexpected in this area is the entrance of former tobacco peddler CVS to the ring. We don’t often see major corporations putting the public good ahead of profit, but CVS waved goodbye to an estimated $2 billion in annual tobacco sales when it stopped selling cigarettes in 2014. That same year, CVS changed its name to CVS Health and ponied up $1 million to national smoking cessation programs.

We were impressed when CVS upped the ante last year with $5 million to combat smoking, but now the nation’s second-largest drugstore chain has pledged 10 times that amount over the next five years with a $50 million commitment to a youth anti-smoking campaign called “Be the First.” The CDC estimates that if the present youth smoking rate remains unchanged, 5.6 million Americans currently under age 18 will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses. The new CVS Health campaign aims for a 3 percent decline in youth smoking and a 10 percent decrease in new youth smokers.

Be the First” (as in, be the first tobacco-free generation) will use millennial-friendly vehicles to deliver anti-smoking messages, including social media, videos, graphics, and school programs. Also on the campaign’s radar is combatting the rise in e-cigarette use.

According to the Wall Street Journal, tobacco companies outspend state-level tobacco prevention efforts 20 to one, with an estimated $9.6 billion in marketing expenditures each year. So the involvement of private funding from CVS Health and CVS Health Foundation is critical to making a difference.

Is the drug store giant trying to atone for its years of selling a deadly product? Who cares? The potential number of deaths prevented, not to mention the dent the campaign could make in the $170 billion spent annually on smoking-related healthcare, makes questioning CVS Health’s motives totally irrelevant. Even as CVS seeks to position itself as a healthcare leader, company statements offer a sincere rationale for the move from tobacco seller to anti-tobacco advocate: “The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose – helping people on their path to better health,” said President and CEO Larry Merlo in 2014.

We’ve written before about our utter amazement that smoking doesn’t get more attention as a cause célèbre. After all, tobacco use causes more deaths worldwide than AIDS and malaria combined. Encouragingly, the year after CVS Health exploited its national reach to urge its customers to quit smoking, revenue rose 9.7 percent and operating profit increased 4.3 percentin spite of the lost tobacco earnings. Maybe the other major drugstore chains will eventually agree that promoting customer health pays off in the long run.