Long before CVS made national news Wednesday by announcing that it will stop selling tobacco products, Maine’s Downeast Pharmacy made the same decision.
Michael Fiori, a Brunswick resident who owned the 17-store chain in Maine and Vermont, stopped selling tobacco at all of his stores on March 17, 1993, at the start of the Clinton administration.
President Clinton didn’t take notice of Downeast Pharmacy’s action like President Obama did Wednesday in praising CVS for being the first national drugstore chain to forgo tobacco revenue. But Fiori’s decision was reported in statewide news stories and national trade publications.
“It was really almost radical for its time,” he said Wednesday.
Fiori, who owned Downeast Pharmacy until he sold the stores in the late 1990s and early 2000s, quit selling tobacco, alcohol and toys that promoted violence.
To advertise the change, he appeared in television ads with his daughter Michela, who was in elementary school. She ripped up a picture of the Joe Camel cartoon character, which Camel used to promote its cigarettes.
In many ways, Fiori said, the public campaigns to ban smoking in the workplace and public spaces began in the early 1990s, along with greater efforts to persuade people to stop smoking.
CVS said Wednesday that it will stop selling cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco by Oct. 1 at its more than 7,600 drugstores nationwide, including more than 20 in Maine. It projected that it will lose $2 billion in revenue per year by stopping tobacco sales, The Associated Press reported.
Fiori said he, too, took a financial risk, and he had to close two of his pharmacies in rural areas within a year because the change reduced their revenue.
“It was appalling how much revenue we were taking in from tobacco products,” said Fiori, who would not disclose the specific financial impact.
He said he knew his decision would hurt his bottom line but he could no longer justify selling cancer-causing products. Fiori said the response from the public was positive.
“You have your blinders on for a while when you sell these products, but at some point you have to take a moral and socially responsible stand,” he said.
Fiori said he believes that Downeast Pharmacy was the first pharmacy chain to go tobacco-free.
His mother died from lung cancer in 1992, he said, but it wasn’t a direct reason why he decided to stop selling tobacco. “It was just something I became adamant about, to promote healthy lifestyles,” he said.
Fiori, 62, who now owns a classic-car restoration company in Winthrop, said he’s surprised that it took another 21 years for a national pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco, “but then there’s a lot of things I’m surprised have taken longer than they should.”
In Freeport, the Bow Street Market stopped selling tobacco in early January. Its owner, Adam Nappi, said that was a goal when he opened a new, bigger store in 2011. He wanted to make sure the business was financially secure before taking the plunge.
Nappi said his employees are not permitted to smoke on the Bow Street Market property, and the company wanted to be consistent in its message.
“We found it a little bit hypocritical to ask our team to not use tobacco products but still be selling them,” he said.
Nappi said the store is giving up $100,000 per year in revenue, but it’s a small and “diminishing” percentage of the overall revenue. He would not disclose annual figures.
Ed Miller, Maine spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said the association is pleased with the CVS decision, and he hopes the other national chains will follow suit.
Miller said drugstores have become more like community health centers, offering vaccinations and helping customers manage chronic diseases like high blood pressure and asthma. As they have done that, he said, it has become ever more disingenuous for them to sell cigarettes.
CVS made that point in a public statement by Larry Merlo, the president and CEO, who emphasized the company’s expanded role in the health care industry.
“Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” Merlo wrote. “As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care through our pharmacists and nurse practitioners.”
While no one is suggesting that the CVS decision will directly reduce the number of people who smoke, Miller said it’s an important statement.
Some cities, including Boston and others in Massachusetts, have approved municipal bans on drugstores selling tobacco products. Miller said he hasn’t heard of any similar proposals in Maine.
State Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, a former Westbrook city councilor, said he doesn’t know if a municipal ban makes sense but he applauds the CVS decision.
A municipal ban “brings up a whole host of interesting issues, including whether you would really be doing anything to make cigarettes less available,” Gattine said.
In downtown Portland on Wednesday, Bob Herczeg and Morgan Myer huddled outdoor in the snowstorm, taking a smoke break at work.
Both said the CVS announcement didn’t matter to them because they are not heavy smokers and plan to quit anyway. “I’m quitting next week,” Herczeg said.
Myer said the good publicity for CVS may help counteract lost revenue.
“It was a calculated business move,” Myer said.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: