Break addiction

In 1988, having watched both my parents die slow, painful deaths from tobacco-induced cancer, I wrote a letter to Sam Walton at Walmart making the case why his stores should stop selling tobacco. I told him my mother had shopped at the Malvern Walmart weekly since it opened in the 1970s. His office sent back a polite letter saying Walmart sold what its customers wanted, including cigarettes.

Three decades later, the funeral processes of countless small towns pass daily by the Walmart stores that sold both the tobacco that their former customers and the medicines used to try to combat the effects of chemo and other aspects of the cancer.

Cigarettes are of course the only legal product that when used as directed by the manufacturer–set afire and inhaled–causes disease and death. Some 500,000 Americans die from tobacco-caused cancer each year per the CDC. Some 20 percent of Arkansans still smoke and most of them shop weekly at Walmart. Certainly many of the 500,000 Americans who die annually from tobacco-induced diseases were Walmart shoppers and bought the tobacco that killed them there.

On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers. That’s a lot of prematurely deceased Walmart shoppers who were sickened and died before their time.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, smoking-related health-care costs in Arkansas top $1.2 billion per year. Smoking-related losses in productivity cost another $1.7 billion a year. Walmart is a global company. Arkansas equals only 1 percent of the US population, so multiply those costs by 100 to see the total US impact. Walmart can, and should, cite facts like those to announce it’s getting out of the tobacco business.

Fast forward to March of 2022 and the business headlines read “Walmart Ends Cigarette Sales in Some Stores,” which saw of the various tobacco cartel companies shares slide. Walmart, with 5,000 stores, is stopping sales in four states including Arkansas. I’m pretty sure this is a test to see how shoppers react, less than the reason given to “use space more efficiently.” Every Walmart store on the planet has essentially the same layout, so that explanation makes little sense.

Other “big box” retailers like Target and CVS stopped selling tobacco years ago. Walmart stopped selling tobacco in Canada more than 20 years ago.

Walmart has made moves to get into the health-services space, not only as one of the nation’s largest retail pharmacy operators, but even opening primary-care clinics within its stores. Yet during all this health-care push Walmart continues to sell products it knows are sickening and killing its customers. Shoppers can literally fill their cancer-related prescriptions in one part of the store and buy their Marlboros in another part of the store. The hypocrisy is impossible to reconcile.

I’m sure someone reading this will say “but other Walmart competitors like Walgreens and Kroger are still selling tobacco.” True, of course, but this is a time for leadership. The Walmart CEO, in breaking his company’s tobacco addiction, can and should challenge his fellow CEOs at Walgreens, Kroger, and Dollar General to stop selling the deadly products.

Walmart, if you care about the health of your customers, do as follows: Get rid of all tobacco and make use of that space more efficiency by former setting up smoking-cessation education kiosks in that tobacco-selling space, complete with educational literature ( which the Arkansas Department of Health and others will gladly provide) and an assortment of smoking cessation products. Polling results consistently find the majority of smokers want to quit the deadly habit. Walmart can enable that desire instead of burning the addiction by selling tobacco.

Tobacco addiction is among the hardest to break, but surely Walmart, like Target and CVS, can break that addiction and earn the right to be in the health-care delivery space without the hypocrisy of selling the deadly products that take the lives of so many of its customers each year.

Ray Hanley lives in Little Rock.

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