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Oct 31, 2014

Study Reveals Paradox of Cigarette Sales in Pharmacies

Patients at risk of smoking-related diseases often purchase cigarettes at the same pharmacy used to fill prescription medications.

Smoking gravely aggravates chronic diseases but that doesn’t stop many adults from purchasing cigarettes alongside their prescription medications at local pharmacies.  

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looked at how many individuals at high-risk for a smoking-related illness purchase cigarettes at their pharmacy. The high-risk groups included in the study were adults with high blood pressure, asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and women taking birth control pills.  

For these three populations, risk of complications is profoundly impacted by cigarette smoking. For example, women older than 35 who smoke and take oral contraceptives are nine times more likely to have a heart attack than nonsmokers. Similarly, hypertension and smoking can be a deadly combination, as smoking further increases blood pressure and can cause heart attack or stroke

To estimate how many high-risk patients purchase cigarettes at their local pharmacy, researchers tapped into data from CVS—the second largest pharmacy chain in the United States. After identifying individuals that filled a prescription for hypertension, asthma, COPD, or birth control between 2011 and 2012, investigators used loyalty cards to determine which adults also purchased cigarettes at CVS during the same time period. 

Among nearly 39,000 adults included in the study, one in 20 high-risk patients purchased cigarettes at the pharmacy. Perhaps worse, roughly 10% of cigarette buyers were taking prescription medication for two or all three of the conditions included in the study. And not surprisingly, individuals purchasing cigarettes visited CVS twice as often as non-smokers each month. 

Of course, authors acknowledge that their estimates may not be completely accurate. Not only did the study not include cigarette purchases from other stores, individuals purchasing cigarettes don’t always use their loyalty card during checkout. Still, study findings support the recent decision of pharmacies like CVS to stop selling cigarettes. The less convenient it is for adults, especially those at highest risk for smoking-related illnesses, to purchase cigarettes, the more likely they are to quit smoking. And with tobacco use serving as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, eliminating smoking is key to helping Americans live longer, healthier lives.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What are the health risks associated with cigarette smoking?
  • Cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ in the body and causes about one in five deaths each year in the United States. Not only does smoking increase risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and lung disease, it diminishes overall health. The good news is that quitting smoking can drastically reduce risk for these conditions, even after just a short period of time.
  • What is the best smoking cessation aid?
  • There are a number of smoking cessation aids available to help smokers kick the habit. There are five types of nicotine replacement therapy currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including patches, inhalers, lozenges, gums and nasal sprays that can help wean smokers off of cigarettes. Certain drugs are also available to help smokers fight nicotine withdrawal and tobacco cravings. Which type of smoking cessation aid is best depends on an individual’s unique needs.


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