CVS tobacco ban sparks sustainability questions

CVS, a national pharmacy chain and increasingly, a healthcare provider, recently announced that it no longer will sell tobacco products in its more than 7,600 pharmacies. As the Affordable Care Act funnels thousands more people into the healthcare system, a significant overflow is expected, and CVS steadily has been gearing up its healthcare services to take advantage of this. As CVS's role in healthcare increases, it's no longer feasible to carry products so widely recognized as deadly and, at best, unhealthy.

This is clearly a positive move, but also a smart move, because in the transition from a purely retail environment to a healthcare provider, this is a huge, if not necessary, bolster to credibility. This, of course, will come along with the loss of profits associated with cigarette sales, and it likely will mean that some customers will go elsewhere altogether. The new possibilities that it opens for CVS, however, are far greater.

By abandoning tobacco sales, CVS now can be taken much more seriously as caring for the health of its customers. This is a great example of the challenges that eco-friendly and socially responsible organizations face constantly. Once you plant a flag in the ground and identify yourself as such an organization, it becomes your responsibility to live up to the claim. It's necessary to shed some habits, some practices, some products and sometimes even some customers, in order to ensure your trajectory and credibility. We all have some "cigarettes" on our shelves that need trashing over time — that may mean constantly improving the ingredients in your product (high fructose corn syrup, sodium lauryl sulfate or GMOs), switching to a paperless office if you provide green products, reducing or eliminating unnecessary packaging elements, or any number of other calibrations.

What this means from a branding and communications perspective is that organizations that stay on top of this process are able to be that much more bold, brazen and powerful about their marketing messages. Formerly, every time CVS made a claim regarding caring about its customers' health, its metaphorical nose grew a little more, and it risked being called a hypocrite. This limits the messages that a company can use. This reality is often behind executives' hesitation to get behind messages that take a stand on issues.

As your services, products and operations increasingly match your story of social and environmental good, you are empowered to craft ever more powerful messages. You can remove the watered down vagueries, whether on your label or your website, and replace them with strong, specific claims. This is the dream of brand developers because we know that these are the changes that make brands stand out.

So ask yourself, what are the "cigarettes" in your organization? What messages are you not sending for fear of hypocrisy? How would your story and your brand be strengthened by removing them?

Cigarettes image by Vladimir Tronin via Shutterstock.