David and Goliath? The US Food and Drug Administration is taking to task mega-retailers that are in violation of restrictions against the sale of tobacco products to minors. Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Thursday that the FDA is evaluating data on large national retail chains to identify entities that have high rates of repeat violations.
Gottlieb also said in the statement that he requested a meeting with Walgreen Co. to discuss whether there are corporate-wide violations of the restriction to minors law and threatened the mega-chain with "additional enforcement avenues." Walgreens operates approximately 9,560 drugstores with a presence in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and it filled 1.1 billion prescriptions (including immunizations) in 2018.
This warning follows Thursday's FDA action against a single Walgreens store in Miami and a single Circle K store in Charleston, South Carolina. The agency filed complaints seeking No-Tobacco-Sale Orders that would bar the two stores from selling tobacco products for 30 days. Circle K owns and operates convenience stores and gas stations, with more than 4,050 locations in North America and more than 1,800 in Europe as of October.
Gottlieb said he is "deeply disturbed that a single pharmacy chain racked up almost 1,800 violations for selling tobacco products to minors across the country."
Walgreens is the top violator among pharmacies that sell tobacco products, with 22% of inspected stores having illegally sold tobacco products to minors, according to the FDA. Gottlieb also said that retailers and "especially those who position themselves as health-and-wellness-minded businesses" are on the front lines of efforts to keep harmful, addictive products out of the hands of kids and so must take their legal obligation "seriously."
Phil Caruso, a spokesman for Walgreens, wrote in an email that the company takes this matter "very seriously." Among the steps taken to address this issue, Walgreens now requires "identification for anyone purchasing tobacco products regardless of age in all of our stores nationwide," he said. "In addition, we are training all of our store team members on the new requirements and strengthening disciplinary actions against store employees who violate the policy."
Caruso added that Walgreens welcomes "the opportunity to meet with the FDA Administrator."
A statement from Circle K said the company has "recently become aware of the action taken by the FDA against one of our stores in Charleston, South Carolina and will work with the agency on this issue."
Recently, the FDA has enforced illegal sales and marketing of e-cigarettes.
"As part of our Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan, we'll continue to employ all the tools at our disposal to monitor, penalize and prevent sales of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to minors at brick-and-mortar stores and Internet storefronts as we work to ensure these products are sold in ways that make them less accessible and appealing to kids," Gottlieb said.
Though overall cigarette smoking rates in the United States are at an all-time low, the CDC says there is still work to do.
Last week, the American Lung Association gave the federal agency poor marks in a report card evaluating its tobacco prevention programs, primarily due to a "lack of action," said Thomas Carr, an author of the new report and national director of policy at the association. The inaction, in particular the FDA's passivity regarding vaping, is "putting the lives and health of Americans at risk," said Carr, who noted the "staggering 78% increase among high school students and e-cigarette use in 2017-18."
The escalation of vaping has led the FDA commissioner to call teen e-cigarette use an "epidemic."
The FDA said that "in the last year alone, the agency has advanced work to render cigarettes minimally or non-addictive, announced historic plans to ban menthol in cigarettes and cigars, and is exploring additional product standards."
The agency described its recent actions "to stop youth use of tobacco products, especially e-cigarettes," as "escalating" and "unprecedented." Its actions include "advanced policies to increase access to, and use of, medicinal nicotine products to help people quit smoking," and has also "launched several adult and youth-focused tobacco public education prevention and cessation campaigns." The lung association gave high marks to the agency's media campaigns.