By Rebecca Shabad and Elise Viebeck - 02/05/14 07:24 AM EST
President Obama on Wednesday applauded CVS Caremark for pulling cigarettes and other tobacco products from its stores.
“As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example, and today’s decision will help advance my administration’s efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs,” said Obama, who struggled to break his smoking habit in the White House.
CVS Caremark announced Wednesday that the chain would phase out cigarettes, chewing tobacco and cigars by Oct. 1. The company said it was abandoning tobacco products to bolster its business and its reputation as a healthcare provider.
"We've come to the conclusion that cigarettes have no place in a setting where health care is being delivered," said CVS Caremark CEO Larry Merlo. "Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health.”
The decision could set a new precedent for businesses, as CVS is the second-largest drugstore chain in the United States with 7,600 stores. Target Corp., a major competitor, does not sell tobacco products.
A spokesman for Walgreen Co., the nation’s largest drugstore chain, said the company is weighing its choice to sell tobacco products against customers' "ongoing health needs." The chain will continue to provide smoking cessation products, the spokesman said in a statement.
The reaction from tobacco companies was muted. Altria, the parent company of leading cigarette maker Philip Morris, said in a statement that the decision to sell tobacco products is up to retailers.
CVS’s announcement noted that smoking is the leading cause of premature disease and death with more than 480,000 deaths annually. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says tobacco use will cause more than eight million deaths annually by 2030.
The chain's decision received wide praise from the Obama administration, Democratic lawmakers, healthcare provider groups and disease organizations like the American Cancer Society.
Members of Congress including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who fought to enact tougher tobacco regulations, urged other drugstore chains to follow CVS's lead.
"I applaud CVS for putting Americans' health ahead of its bottom line … [and] I encourage other pharmacies to follow this model," said Harkin, who has served as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee since 2009.
— This story was updated at 12:39 p.m.