Walgreens NY 2
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. will be the world's largest buyer of prescription drugs. Reuters

Almost immediately after CVS Caremark Corporation (NYSE:CVS), the nation’s No. 2 drugstore chain, announced that it will stop selling tobacco products, the eyes of many discerning consumers turned to No. 1.

Across social media, consumers have been fervently calling on Walgreen Company (NYSE:WAG) to follow CVS’ unprecedented lead. On Wednesday, health-conscious social media users descended on the Walgreens Facebook page, asking the Deerfield, Ill., company to commit to a smokeless future at its 8,500-plus locations. Some avowed Walgreens customers threatened to start shopping at its smoke-free competitor if their requests for a tobacco ban are not heeded. “I hope I don’t have to pass by my corner Walgreens to support CVS now,” wrote one Facebook user.

It was a similar story on Twitter, where many users tweeted Wednesday morning with the hashtag #CVSquits.

A spokesman for Walgreens declined to comment on the social media campaign or the likelihood that the company will follow CVS. In an emailed statement, the spokesman said simply that Walgreens has been “evaluating” tobacco products for some time.

“We have been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us with their ongoing health needs. We will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want, while also helping to educate them and providing smoking-cessation products and alternatives that help to reduce the demand for tobacco products.”

As was widely reported Wednesday, CVS Caremark said it plans to discontinue the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products by Oct. 1. The move follows years of mounting pressure from heath officials who say retailers, and drugstores in particular, have a responsibility to take steps to curb the sale of products known to result in myriad adverse health effects. In a statement, the American Lung Association applauded CVS for what it called a “bold public health move.”

The decision, however you want to describe it, has placed Walgreens in a tricky position from a public-relations standpoint. In 2008, the company filed a lawsuit in San Francisco challenging the constitutionality of a local ordinance that prohibited the sale of tobacco products in drugstores. The company argued that the ordinance was discriminatory in that it singled out drugstores but left grocery chains free to sell tobacco products.

That Walgreens has been active in asserting its right to sell such products may make its latest assertion seem like smoke and mirrors in the eyes of some consumers, but in the end the company may have no choice but to cave to increasing public pressure. Some airline carriers made similar moves in the late 1980s and 1990s, with Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE:DAL) going smoke-free years before FAA regulations forced the airline industry to follow.

In a statement regarding CVS’ decision, Larry J. Merlo, the company’s president and chief executive, said, “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.”

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