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Back when I was a broke college kid and was still a tobacco consumer, few tobacco products provided a better value than Parodi cigars. Yes, they were machine-made. However, they were mechanically bunched and wrap with robust and smokey fire-cured Kentucky/Tennesse broadleaf tobacco. These rugged little stoogies wouldn’t get too far in a beauty contest, but they were solidly constructed. Mimicked the rustic tuscano cigars smoked in Spaghetti Westerns. There was only one brick-and-mortar locational locally that sold these drug-store treasures happen to be CVS. This all changed in 2014 when CVS elected to stop selling tobacco products altogether in the name of promoting health. Sure there was still the internet, with the complexities of shipping cigars across state lines (tax-wise and legally) it was far from an ideal option. I was far from the only one frustrated with this decision made by corporate. In 2015, CVS speculated a slight drop in sales was connected to the corporate ban on tobacco sales.

It is understandable for a firm to strive to convey a consistent message. There is a fair amount of hypocrisy in a healthcare store selling tobacco. Eliminating tobacco makes sense, only if you stop selling all the other unhealthy products sold at CVS locations. Examples ranging from soda, energy drinks, candy, and liquor. Also, one cannot forget powerful opioid narcotics. Granted, there is purportedly “safe” way to ingest such medications. Why not take a stand against the addiction crisis currently plaguing America if the company is so concerned about public health? Needless to say, there is certainly an asymmetry in CVS as a corporation’s advocacy for public health. Bringing the whole rhetoric of voluntarily choosing to stop selling tobacco into question. Even leading the incredulous skeptics among us to question the organization’s true intentions.

The murky intentions of CVS once again bring us back to the economist Bruce Yandle’s famous Bootleggers and Baptists hypothesis. In instances of this coalition-building dynamic, there are always the virtue signalers that provide us with the moral argument for a policy. The silent beneficiaries are known as the bootleggers. Individuals that purely advocate for the policy out of self-interest. Our Baptists in this scenario become apparent when you review the various organizations that provided praise to CVS for this move. Establishments such as the Massachusetts Medical Society and The Harvard School of Public Health. The Bootleggers benefiting from this shift in CVS’s business practices is clear as day, companies producing smoking cessation products. One of the most prevalent examples being Nicorette.

Where does CVS fall in the equation? Surely they either benefit from this change in-store policy or are expressing concern for public health?  I would argue CVS is an example of a dual-role actor. A dual-role actor in Bootleggers and Baptists coalitions are an economic agent or collective of economic agents that fill the role of Bootlegger and Baptist. They may have a genuine concern for the more implications of policy. However, they also simultaneously stand to gain from the purposed or implemented policy. For the sake of being charitable, let’s assume the initiative to improve “wellness” is sincere. Inconsistent, yet sincere. By exalting the virtues of not selling harmful products such as chewing tobacco, cigars, pipe tobacco, cigarettes, etc CVS claims the moral high ground, making them a Baptist. However, they also at the same time gain through accumulating social currency. From the standpoint of publicity, this is gold. The detrimental effects of tobacco use have been well documented and overall public perception of tobacco consumption is quite negative. These factors make tobacco low-hanging fruit in terms of formulating policy. Whether it is the internal policies of a private company or the stroke of a legislator’s pen, tobacco is an easy target. There is no quicker way to look like a hero than to stick it to Phillip Morris. However, why continue to sell soda and candy if you are concerned about fostering public health? Would the customer backlash be too strong? That said, it is difficult to quell my continued skepticism of CVS’s motives for this move. There is a high probability that CVS is operating as an advocate and a beneficiary.

2 thoughts on “Bootleggers & Baptists Part: XI: CVS and Tobacco

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