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FDA calls Walgreens' sale of tobacco to minors "disturbing"

Posted at 6:13 PM, Mar 04, 2019

The Food and Drug Administration says Walgreens sells more tobacco products to minors than any other pharmacy chain. Now the agency wants to meet with the company to discuss its tobacco and e-cigarette sales policies.

The FDA's request is part of the agency's broader crackdown on the sale of tobacoo and e-cigarette products to young people. Even though e-cigarettes can be used with non-tobacco products, it's illegal to sell them to anyone younger than 18 .

The agency says the use of e-cigarettes by young people remains at "epidemic levels."

FDA inspectors have found nearly 1,800 cases since 2010 where Walgreens stores violated the law and illegally sold tobacco products to minors, according to a letter FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote Monday to Richard Ashworth, Walgreens' president of operations. Gottlieb said the company is the "top violator" among pharmacy chains that sell such products. 22% of the more than 6,000 Walgreens stores the FDA inspected made illegal sales.

Gottleib called the rate of violations at Walgreens "disturbing, particularly since the company positions itself as a health-and-wellness-minded business." He said Walgreens, as a retailer, plays an important role in curbing tobacco sales to minors, and he noted that the number of violations "cannot possibly come as a surprise to corporate leadership."

"These illegal sales must stop," Gottlieb wrote. "The stakes are too high for our young people and our country's decades-long fight to reduce the morbidity and mortality that accompanies tobacco product use."

Last month, the FDA moved to block all tobacco sales at a Walgreens store in Miami after the agency said a minor was allowed to purchase cigarettes there. It was the fifth time in three years the store had been cited for a violation by the FDA.

Walgreens told CNN Business that it looks forward to the meeting.

"We have a zero tolerance policy prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors and any employee violating this policy is subject to immediate termination," the company said in a statement. It added that it requires that employees check the age of anyone attempting to purchase a tobacco product, and said it is "lowering the visibility" of those products in "certain stores."

That contributed to a drop in retail sales during the company's first quarter, Walgreens said. Sales at stores open at least a year fell more than 3% during that time period, the company said when it reported earnings in December .

Walgreens' major competitor CVS halted the sale of tobacco products altogether in 2014. CVS' general merchandise sales fell 8% as a result .

CVS said it stopped selling tobacco because the practice " conflicted with our purpose of helping people on their path to better health ."