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MONDAY, Oct. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- While picking up a prescription for cholesterol-lowering medication, about one in 20 people with conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or high blood pressure will also purchase cigarettes, a new study finds.
"While smoking itself can cause many health problems, it can worsen certain conditions and have other effects on medications," said lead researcher Joshua Gagne, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
For example, smoking can worsen respiratory conditions and can increase blood pressure, the researchers wrote. Smoking can also increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in oral contraceptives users, Gagne said.
In February, the pharmacy chain CVS announced that it would no longer sell tobacco products at its stores beginning in October 2014. CVS said it was making the move because selling tobacco products isn't in keeping with a pharmacy's mission of helping to protect people's health. The company said it was the first national pharmacy chain to halt the sale of tobacco products.
"Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health," Larry Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, said in a news release. "Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."
For the study, Gagne and his colleagues looked at data from CVS on more than 361,000 customers who filled prescriptions for statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) between January 2011 and June 2012. The researchers linked this data to all purchases at CVS stores.
The study found that people who purchased cigarettes while picking up a prescription made twice as many visits to the store compared to those who didn't buy cigarettes.
Of course, it's still easy for smokers to buy their cigarettes elsewhere, Gagne said. However, pharmacists can play an important role in helping patients stop smoking, he said.
"Pharmacists are trained in smoking cessation counseling and are often among the most accessible and most frequently visited health care professionals. Rather than providing an opportunity to promote smoking, pharmacy visits should represent an opportunity to help patients quit," Gagne said.
Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific advisor at the American Lung Association, said, "Making the purchase of cigarettes easy for those most at risk from smoking is certainly not good public health practice.
"It would seem obvious that stores which are selling 'health' have a responsibility to avoid selling products which lead to death and disability," he said.
The American Lung Association has entered a partnership with CVS to combat lung cancer, which is primarily caused by smoking, Edelman said. "We applaud their decision to discontinue selling cigarettes and hope other drug outlets will do the same," he said.
When CVS announced its decision, its largest competitor, Walgreens, said that they planned to continue selling tobacco products.
According to published reports, Walgreens said in a statement that since tobacco sales in pharmacies make up only 4 percent of total tobacco sales, there would be "little to no significant impact" on smoking if they stopped selling tobacco.
The company noted that it sells a variety of products to help people quit smoking.
"We believe that if the goal is to truly reduce tobacco use in America, then the most effective thing retail pharmacies can do is address the root causes and help smokers quit," Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn said in the statement.
The new study was published Oct. 20 online in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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