CVS's decision to stop selling tobacco products is another important step in hopefully reducing South Jersey's highest-in-the-state adult smoking rates, health officials contend.

The move by the nation's largest drug store chain sends a strong message about the health dangers of smoking tobacco, said Melanie Pirolla, administrative director of cancer services with Inspira Health Network, which operates hospitals in Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties.

"It might just seem like another message (about the dangers of smoking), but once you get all those messages piling on top of one another, it has more of an impact," she said.

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Sandra Murray, a tobacco treatment specialist with Inspira, said three people have called her for smoking cessation help following the CVS announcement last week. She said it's likely that announcement is responsible, in part, for their decision to seek help.

Now that CVS has taken that bold step, other pharmacies and retailers may consider doing the same, said Arnold Baskies, a member of the American Cancer Society's board of directors. That would be a great help to South Jersey, where seven counties have adult smoking rates of at least 20 percent, he said.

"It can't hurt," he said. "This is an example of what needs to be done."

But Baskies said clearing shelves of cigarettes alone will not solve the region's smoking problems, as high adult smoking rates are directly linked to a region's economic, educational and social issues.

That may best be illustrated in Cumberland County, which American Cancer Society statistics show leads all New Jersey counties with a 25 percent adult smoking rate. Economic indicators annually rank Cumberland County with the worst, or near-worst, economy in the state. U.S. Census Bureau figures further show Cumberland County has a high school graduation rate that lags behind the state average.

Murray said smoking also is a growing generational problem in the county. Young adult smokers are following in the footsteps of their parents, grandparents and, in some cases, great-grandparents, she said.

Murray said it would be good if other cigarette retailers joined CVS in not selling tobacco products.

"Will it steamroll into something?" Murray said. "I don't know. I hope."

Some Cumberland County residents who were smoking outside the NJ Transit bus terminal in Vineland this week had mixed feelings about the CVS decision.

Vineland resident Edgar Santiago said he hopes it will make it more difficult for children to obtain cigarettes.

"Fifteen years old, that shouldn't happen," he said.

But the 50-year-old, unemployed Santiago sets no example: he has smoked for about 30 years, and now puffs two to three cigarettes per day.

"I know it's not good for me," he said.

Another Vineland resident, Carolynn Caroselli, disagrees with the CVS decision.

"They should sell them," said Caroselli, who is unemployed. "People should be able to make up their own mind on whether to buy them."

CVS announced last week it will stop selling tobacco products by October. Company officials said the decision was in line with its move toward being more of a health care provider and offering services such as miniclinics.

CVS estimates it will lose about $2 billion in revenue by not selling tobacco products. The company realized $123 billion in sales in 2012, the latest year for which figures were available.

American Cancer Society officials said in March that South Jersey's smoking habits will play an important part of a nationwide, 30-year cancer study. Cancer Prevention Study-3 will monitor as many as 300,000 cancer-free volunteers nationwide to determine how their lifestyles and the environments in which they live help cause or prevent different forms of the disease.

One study involves lung cancer. A society report released in 2012 showed that men and women living in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties have lung cancer rates that exceed the state average. The society contends that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer.

Inspira now is increasingly taking its anti-smoking message to schools and industrial sites in Cumberland County, Pirolla said.

"It's been very well received," Pirolla said. "A lot of people really want to quit. If we keep encouraging them and giving them quit-(smoking) plans, one of them may work for them."

Baskies also said the state needs to spend more money to stem the use of tobacco products. That is necessary to combat a tobacco industry that spends an estimated $29 million per day on advertising, he said.

"We're up against a tremendous empire of evil," he said.

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