Corporate Social Responsibility in the Public Interest

After loads of stories and lots of handwringing about opioid addiction, a major retail pharmacy chain is stepping up to restrict the size of opioid prescriptions to protect patients, spur public dialogue  and galvanize a broader response to a national epidemic.

After loads of stories and lots of handwringing about opioid addiction, a major retail pharmacy chain is stepping up to restrict the size of opioid prescriptions to protect patients, spur public dialogue  and galvanize a broader response to a national epidemic.

CVS has gone from battling tobacco use by youth to joining the fight against opioid addiction. In the process, it is providing a textbook example of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that is relevant, instructive and counter to its self-interest.

When CVS stopped selling cigarettes in 2014, it gave up a $2 billion per year business. Now the pharmacy chain will restrict the size of opioid prescriptions, which also could mean lost sales and profits. The restriction, which will go into effect February 1, will limit opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin to a seven-day supply. The average opioid pill supply prescribed by US doctors has climbed from 13 days in 2006 to 18 days in 2015.

Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy, says CVS tries to balance profit and purpose. The company’s CSR strategy is called “Prescription for a Better World” and focuses on “building healthier communities, protecting the planet and creating economic opportunities.”

What sets the company’s CSR program apart is its willingness to buck self-interest. No question, the decisions to stop selling tobacco products and restrict the size of opioid prescriptions are intended to build goodwill. But they are not happy-foot contributions to popular causes. They are actions intended to galvanize broader movements to address significant social challenges.

There have been a lot of stories about the woes created by opioid addiction and plenty of handwringing about what to do about it. The CVS decision is a tangible step to reduce the amount of pills in circulation, collect and dispose of unused pills and educate patients about the risks of the long-term use of opioids. It is the first national retail chain to restrict opioid prescriptions.

“We are strengthening our commitment to help providers and patients balance the need for these powerful medications with the risk of abuse and misuse,” says CVS Health President and CEO Larry J. Merlo. CVS claims to manage 90 million patient prescriptions through 9,700 retail pharmacies.

CSR activities are good business, but no often enough bad for business. CVS demonstrates a more compelling form of CSR by taking actions in the public interest, not its self-interest.