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CVS’ New Policy on Smokes Reminds Me of Its Past Support for Drug Importation

Let’s give a big round of applause to CVS, the second largest chain pharmacy (behind Walgreens), for its decision to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products! To its credit, CVS is not being overly self-righteous, as it largely attributes the policy change as necessary to accommodate legal restrictions on tobacco sales in places where healthcare services are provided: this is in view of its plans to open up more healthcare clinics in its pharmacies throughout the country. So, come October, as per the company’s plans press release, Americans will no longer be able to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products at any of the 7,000-plus CVS stores nationwide.

Unfortunately, removing tobacco products from CVS’ shelves won’t help Americans afford their medicine. According to a survey by Consumer Reports, CVS has the highest drug prices (Costco had the lowest prices, especially on generics). While executives at U.S. pharmacy corporations have steadfastly opposed reforming drug importation laws to bring down drug costs, CVS’ former Chairman and CEO, Thomas Ryan, bravely supported it. To quote Mr. Ryan:

While many in our industry believe that importation is a fundamentally flawed concept and oppose it without exception, I have come to a slightly different view…Millions of Americans already have opted to import drugs because they can’t afford not to. We owe it to them to face this issue head on and not look the other way.


That statement was provided by Mr. Ryan in 2004. Since that time, access to affordable medication in the U.S. has only become more difficult due to higher drug prices, and Americans continue to personally import their medication, often from international online pharmacies.

The reason that those online pharmacies are a lifeline is provided by none other than…CVS! CVS/Caremark surveyed their pharmacists about a year ago; 61% cited high drug costs as the number one reason Americans don’t take their meds. Canadian and other foreign pharmacies have much lower prices and so Americans need them.

To be intellectually honest, Mr. Ryan’s idea was not for Americans to buy directly from Canadian or other foreign pharmacies but for CVS to import less expensive medication from verified foreign wholesale pharmacies and then sell it to Americans. Not a bad idea to help bring down drug costs, while keeping American pharmacists employed and corporate profits humming. Thus, understandably, Mr. Ryan’s position was dedicated to the public health and his business interests.

The heart and soul of Mr. Ryan’s position, however, is the public health alone – and not business interests. Once again, he said: “Millions of Americans already have opted to import drugs because they can’t afford not to. We owe it to them to face this issue head on and not look the other way.” They opt to import because brand name drugs are often 90% less expensive internationally. That’s why it’s best to help Americans safely buy medications where they can best afford it instead of looking the other way.

So you can put out that cigarette, get your flu shots from CVS, your generics from Costco and your brand name drugs overseas!

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