Walgreens, the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, has long endured criticism because it refuses to stop selling cigarettes, even as it fills prescriptions for cancer patients. Now it has come up with a new way to profit from cancer.
In a program called Feel More Like You, which debuted nationally in March, Walgreens cosmetic consultants advise cancer patients on what products to buy for hair loss, dry or discolored skin, brittle fingernails, and other side effects of treatment. Pharmacists are recommending over-the-counter meds for side effects including fatigue and skin rashes.
Employee training for the program includes lessons on expressing empathy.
Sorry about your cough?
Lisa Henriksen, a tobacco regulation expert at Stanford University, says the new program
“sounds like a very cynical form of vertical integration. They’re selling products that cause cancer, and also selling products for cancer sufferers.”
Opposition to pharmacies hawking the top cause of preventable death isn’t confined to idealists in academia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants cigarettes out of pharmacies. So do the American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association, the American Cancer Society, and a majority of Americans, as The Progressive reported last fall.
“Sounds like a very cynical form of vertical integration. They’re selling products that cause cancer, and also selling products for cancer sufferers.”
They want Walgreens to follow the lead of CVS, the second-largest pharmacy chain, which dropped tobacco in 2014 along with $2 billion in annual sales and nevertheless reported higher revenue and earnings that year. Equity analyst Brian Tanquilut at Jefferies Group tells The Progressive that Walgreens, which earned $5 billion on sales of $132 billion in fiscal 2018, could financially weather the loss of tobacco, too.
Walgreens, officially known as Walgreens Boots Alliance, sells nicotine patches and gum right next to Marlboros and Kools, the sight of which can trigger the urge to light up, researchers have found. The pharmacy chain claims to have de-emphasized tobacco by giving it less shelf space, but don’t tell that to Amy Taylor, a senior vice president at Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco group.
“That’s hard for me to swallow,” Taylor says. “As long as they have a power wall of cigarettes behind the front counter, that’s the best marketing for their product.”
Walgreens pulled tobacco from its stores in Gainesville, Florida, in an ongoing pilot project to gauge customer reaction. But company executives continue to cite market demand as a reason to keep selling cancer sticks elsewhere.
“We leave it to customer choice,” said Walgreens executive chairman James Skinner at the company’s shareholder meeting in January. “If the customers choose to smoke and wants to buy tobacco products in our environment, we provide that.”
The new Walgreens program to help cancer patients cope with side effects of treatment is laudable in itself. I recently accompanied a friend who’s recovering from lung cancer (not related to smoking) on a trip to the beauty counter at a Walgreens in St. Louis. I came away impressed with the service she received from the cosmetic consultant—thoughtful advice, free samples of skin cleansers, moisturizing cream, and lip balm; and a hug at the end of the visit.
But afterwards, my friend asked, “Is antithetical a good word to use? They want you to be the healthy, the most beautiful you can be, and yet they sell cigarettes.”
Truth Initiative’s Taylor is just as baffled. “Anything that helps people battle cancer and feel better we support,” she says. “That said, Walgreens needs to do the right thing (get rid of tobacco), and they’re not doing it.”
Tom McCaney, associate director for corporate social responsibility at a Philadelphia religious order that owns Walgreens stock, says the good work of Feel More Like You shouldn’t distract anybody from the bigger issue of tobacco sales. “They want to be considered a retailer when it suits them, and a healthcare company when it suits them,” McCaney tells The Progressive. “They can’t have it both ways.”
“They want to be considered a retailer when it suits them, and a healthcare company when it suits them. They can’t have it both ways.”
Contacted for comment, Walgreens declined to answer questions about how it reconciles Feel More Like You with tobacco sales, beyond emailing a sentence from a press release saying the program was created to “meet the increasing needs of people impacted by cancer.”
“We at the Cancer Support Community work with our affiliates and partners like Walgreens and others to ensure patients and families have access to the resources that will help them through this experience,” said CSC president Linda House in an email. “However, we also believe all retailers should end tobacco sales.”
In February, the Food and Drug Administration announced that among pharmacies that sell tobacco products, Walgreens is the top violator when it comes to illegally selling them to minors. That occurred in 22 percent of the Walgreens stores that the FDA inspected.
“Both the rate and sheer volume of violative inspections of Walgreens stores are disturbing, particularly since the company positions itself as a health-and-wellness-minded business,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote to Walgreens in March.
In a press release, Walgreens pointed to its “zero tolerance policy” on tobacco sales to kids, and said it was trying to help smokers quit the habit.
Stanford’s Lisa Henriksen calls the company’s sales to minors “despicable.”
“Walgreens,” she says, “is not a good-faith actor.”
No matter how much make-up it puts on.