By Andy Metzger and Michael Norton

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- CVS Caremark will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its 7,600 drug stores throughout the country by Oct. 1, an announcement that drew quick praise from President Barack Obama and a call from a top Bay State physician for other retailers to follow the company's lead.

"Every day we are helping millions of patients manage chronic conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and all of these conditions are made worse by smoking," company president Larry Merlo announced in a video Wednesday. "Tobacco products have no place in a setting where health care is delivered."

Tobacco products have long lured customers into retail stores where they may spend more money on other items. The publicly traded company estimates the move will cause it to forego about $2 billion in revenue.

CVS stores dot the landscape in Massachusetts, and the pharmacy chain has in recent years expanded into the health care field with Minute Clinics, where patients can see nurses and physician assistants.

The Woonsocket, R.I.-based company is the first national pharmacy chain to "step up" and ban the harmful products from all of its stores, and CVS will also launch a smoking cessation program in the spring, Merlo said.

In a statement following the announcement by CVS, President Barack Obama said, "As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example, and today's decision will help advance my Administration's efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs - ultimately saving lives and protecting untold numbers of families from pain and heartbreak for years to come. I congratulate - and thank - the CEO of CVS Caremark, Larry Merlo, the board of directors, and all who helped make a choice that will have a profoundly positive impact on the health of our country."

Massachusetts Medical Society President Ronald Dunlap called the decision was a "milestone" in tobacco prevention and urged other retailers "to follow the company's lead."

"As a cardiologist for 34 years, I have seen the devastating effects of tobacco on too many patients for far too long. Heart and respiratory diseases, stroke, and other disorders related to smoking have taken a huge toll," Dunlap said. "We must remember that nearly 44 million American adults still smoke, and tobacco accounts for some 443,000 deaths each year. Tobacco use also claims a huge part of our nation's health care expense, at $96 billion in direct medical costs annually."

Senate President Pro Tempore Richard Moore, a Democrat from Uxbridge, said he encouraged CVS to stop selling tobacco products two years ago after meeting with Oxford High School students who had convinced a local CVS to make the move. Students from Milford High also expressed concerns to Moore about tobacco sales in pharmacies.

Moore applauded the news Wednesday. "The decision to end selling tobacco products is a good one that will benefit people everywhere," the former Health Care Financing Committee co-chairman said in a statement. "I hope it will lead other pharmacy chains to also recognize the mixed message when a business sells products designed to make us well alongside those that can kill us."

CVS has already banned tobacco from many of its stores, and Merlo said scrapping cigarettes will give the company a "growing role in the health care delivery system."

Massachusetts lawmakers last summer increased taxes on cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products, leading to some worry that the state will be more appealing to cigarette smugglers.

On the local level, officials have taken action to limit access to tobacco.

Some cities and towns have followed the lead of Needham in raising the age-limit for purchasing cigarettes from the statewide age of 18 to the age of 21. 

Massachusetts already has a workplace smoking ban law and Boston recently banned smoking in city parks.