It is early December, 1944. A young GI has pulled another all-nighter listening to Nazi propaganda with a fellow soldier who recently emigrated to the U.S. from Germany, fleeing persecution. He has finished his report to his superiors just as the dawn arrives, including his recommendation for copy for leaflets to be dropped that day over enemy lines. “Warm, all I want to be is warm.” The snow cascades down as he trudges to his tent, overlooking the giant cemetery in Verdun, with 300,000 dead from World War I. He drags on his cigarette and quaffs his coffee; thank goodness the U.S. Army gives us free cigarettes so we can keep doing our jobs in this freezing place.
Flash forward 20 years to Chicago, where the GI has put down stakes, started a business, married and had three kids. The former journalist and WWII propaganda expert has become a PR man. Lots of stress in the job, clients to satisfy, copy to edit, reporters to cultivate. He is now up to two packs a day. He has put on weight, now up to 195 pounds, 25 more than in his college tennis days. And he has to remember to call the plumber. The toilet in his bathroom has broken down for the third time in a month. Maybe I need a new one; but it never had problems in the past two years, why now? The answer came at 7 P.M. when he came through the door at home to find his wife and eldest child. “Now tell your father what you have been doing. Flushing his cigarettes down the toilet. Why would you do such a thing? He needs them for his work,” said his wife.
Tearfully, the child confesses to having been a serial flusher of cigarettes. “I saw an ad on TV. It had the Marlboro Man coming into a bar. He had his cowboy hat on. He ordered a drink. But then he collapsed on the floor coughing. It said you can die of cancer from smoking. And I don’t want you to die.” And so after a 20-year love affair with cigarettes, Dan Edelman gave up smoking and lived until 92. The child is me, a most determined opponent of smoking, prepared to engage in a war of wills with one of America’s most stubborn men to get my way.
That is why I am so proud that our firm is involved with client CVS Caremark, which today has stated its intention to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at all of its 7,600 stores by October 1st. Larry Merlo, president and CEO, states that sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with the purpose of the company. He goes on to say that his company will help Americans kick the habit because it is the right thing to do. The 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners on the frontlines of delivering health care in the CVS retail pharmacies will be actively implementing smoking cessation programs for its millions of customers. The company estimates that it is walking away from $2 billion in revenue associated with sale of tobacco products. To Mr. Merlo, I say bravo to a CEO willing to recognize a basic inconsistency and having the confidence to fix it. You will be rewarded by your customers and communities alike.
Great companies take on the important challenges facing society. Walmart* worked to offer affordable fruit and vegetables in lower-income neighborhoods to combat obesity. GE* employed Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans in higher skilled jobs, offering educational equivalency based on experience in the field. PepsiCo* changed the supply chain equation in developing nations such as Mexico, teaching farmers how to use blue corn seeds to grow higher value crops, which then allows the company to source locally for a premium chips product. And now CVS Caremark, pushing beyond its traditional retail pharmacy business, is becoming a champion of wellness instead of just a retailer selling what people may want to buy upfront and dispensing health advice and treatment in the back.
This is exactly the kind of leadership I was advocating in my essay two weeks ago from the World Economic Forum on the need for CEOs to become chief engagement officers. If government cannot or will not create the environment for change, then business executives must ascend the bully pulpit, to educate and lead by example. Smoking in the U.S. remains one of our virulent killers, with 18 percent of adults still smoking (down from 42 percent in 1965) and 480,000 deaths a year attributable to the habit. When I was proposed as a board member of the Centers for Disease Control in the mid-1990s, a quick background check uncovered our work in Canada and the U.S. for British American Tobacco. Bernie Marcus, chairman of Home Depot, pulled me aside and asked me, “Why the hell don’t you stop working for that client? You would be saving a lot of lives.” One of my first acts as CEO in 1997 was to resign the client. Now everywhere I go in the world, I offer the Richard “no-smoking” deal: a $2,000 check for the promise to quit. In my last visit to Tokyo, a young man, Atsuo Ishida, decided it was time to shake my hand and take the pledge for the betterment of his health.
Mr. Merlo, by his brave action, has actually shaken the hands of millions who will live longer and better lives. I hope other retailers will join in this effort. Thank you for your inspirational decision.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.