CVS

A CVS phamracy. (June 5, 2014)

CVS Caremark Corp. is on track to remove all tobacco products from its 7,600 stores by Oct. 1, the president of its pharmacy division said Thursday.

CVS in February said it would abandon its $2 billion-a-year tobacco business in favor of bolstering its reputation as a true health care company.

In doing so, it became the first major American pharmacy chain to walk away from cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other tobacco products, ratcheting up pressure on its rivals, including Deerfield-based Walgreen Co.

Helena Foulkes, who leads the Woonsocket, R.I.-based company’s pharmacy division, CVS/Pharmacy, said stores will continue selling and replenishing tobacco products through an undetermined cessation date later this year, when all inventory will be pulled from shelves in all stores.

“Our plan is to stay in business and work down our inventory up through the final date,” she said in an interview.

In place of cigarettes and other tobacco products, CVS will use the behind-the-counter shelf space to promote its cessation products and trumpet its exit from the tobacco business, Foulkes said.

The move already has paid dividends in bolstering CVS’ reputation with some consumers and, perhaps more importantly, with prospective clients like health plans and hospital systems, she said.

“It gave us a strategic opportunity to show them that we mean business as a health care company,” Foulkes said.

Drugstores like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreen are seeking to play a larger role in the U.S. health system by becoming more comprehensive health care providers with in-store clinics that offer additional services like vaccinations, disease management and routine care for minor injuries and illnesses.

They're collectively trying to capture a surge of newly insured Americans gaining coverage through the health care overhaul law. And they're doing so against a backdrop of a shortage of primary care physicians in the United States that’s expected to grow to 40,000 by 2020, Foulkes said.

CVS, which also operates a large pharmacy benefits manager, had difficulty squaring its migration deeper into health care with continuing to sell tobacco, something its clients also became increasingly vocal about, Foulkes said.

No major retailer has taken steps to limit tobacco sales since Target announced in 1996 that it would stop selling tobacco products.

Walgreen has said it continues to evaluate its tobacco line, but hasn’t made any commitment to stop selling those products. A spokesman on Thursday said the company had nothing new to add.

pfrost@tribune.com