Off Beat: Pharmacy chain’s tobacco announcement an echo

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



After almost three decades, the nation’s second-biggest pharmacy chain is catching up with a Vancouver drugstore owner.

CVS announced this month that it will stop selling tobacco products at its 7,600 stores by Oct. 1.

The news echoed a headline in The Columbian: “Cigarettes snuffed: 10 Hi-School shops to stop tobacco sales.”

Our story ran on Aug. 29, 1986.

Steve Oliva, who is president and CEO of Hi-School Pharmacy, said the decision 28 years ago was made after a conversation with a couple of local doctors.

“Brian Harwood and Bob Fisher were pulmonologists at Vancouver Clinic,” Oliva recalled a few days ago. “They invited me to lunch and asked, ‘What do we have to do to get you to quit selling cigarettes at your drug stores?'”

Oliva’s response: “All you’ve got to do is ask me.”

Our story noted that a couple of independent pharmacies in Clark County also were tobacco-free. But Hi-School Pharmacy was the first small drug chain in the nation to do it, Oliva said.

“We got a lot of national press,” he said. And closer to home, the move generated enough customer support to offset the loss of cigarette sales.

“It helped us grow our pharmacy business,” Oliva said. “It was a net gain.”

In 2003, Oliva sold 11 of the chain’s Clark County stores to Walgreens Co., the nation’s largest drugstore chain.

And now Oliva is hearing another echo.

“We asked Walgreens to continue the policy of not selling cigarettes” in the former Hi-School pharmacies, Oliva said.

A Walgreens spokesman said in 2003 that the chain was studying the issue … and then the relabeled stores started selling cigarettes.

This month, Walgreens officials were asked if they’d follow the CVS lead and drop tobacco products.

Walgreens, Oliva noted, still seems to be studying the issue.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.