In September 2014, CVS Health, the USA’s biggest pharmacy chain, announced it would cease selling cigarettes in its 9,600 outlets, putting a line through $2bn (£1.5bn) of annual revenue.
You might ask what a pharmacy was doing selling fags in the first place – this would be like popping into Boots for your 20 Rothmans – but profiting from sales of tobacco was a norm for the sector. All five of CVS Health’s major competitors engaged in it, and still do.
The change was driven through by a marketer, Norman de Greve, who had a personal reason to fight the inevitable internal battles: his father had died of lung cancer when he was seven. But there was another pivotal factor that made the timing pertinent: the group had recently changed its trading name – from CVS Caremark to CVS Health.
A cynic might justifiably ask whether it really took the inclusion of that new word to suddenly make it realise what business it had been in all along. What else could a pharmacist group be, but a health business? A realist, more in tune with the rhythms of business, would nod and see how these things can happen – how entire industries can drift and be carried along on a tide of incremental shifts until they end up a hemisphere from where they started.
For a combination of reasons, then, the CVS business was inspired to focus in and ask itself a simple yet deeply exposing question: what are we here to do? Once the answer had narrowed down to ‘helping people to better health’, it was clear that some tough decisions would follow.