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FDA Says Walgreens Has Most Violations of Rules Against Selling Tobacco to Youths

February 8, 2019

By Bloomberg

U.S. health officials plan to ask for a meeting with top management from Walgreens Boots Alliance to discuss what they said was a pattern of illegal tobacco sales to minors at the pharmacy giant’s stores.

The Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday that it would block a Walgreens store in Miami from selling tobacco products for 30 days. The agency also said 22 percent of the Walgreens stores it had inspected had illegally sold tobacco products to minors.

The FDA inspected 6,350 Walgreens stores, said Michael Felberbaum, an agency spokesman. Walgreens has received more than 1,550 warning letters from the FDA and has incurred 240 financial penalties since 2010 for selling tobacco to minors, he said.

“Walgreens is currently the top violator among pharmacies that sell tobacco products,” the agency said in a statement.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency is considering additional enforcement action against Walgreens to “address their record of violative tobacco sales to youth.” The company has said recently that it is pulling back on retail sales amid broader changes in its strategy.

Walgreens said it takes the matter “very seriously” and has taken steps to address the problem, including requiring store clerks to ask anyone purchasing tobacco for identification, regardless of age, and imposing tougher disciplinary actions against employees who don’t follow its policies.

“We recognize the seriousness of this issue and welcome the opportunity to meet with the FDA administrator to discuss all of the steps we are taking,” Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn said in an email.

Shares of the company were down 0.7 percent, to $70.99 in early afternoon trading.

Gottlieb said he was particularly concerned about how selling cigarettes in a pharmacy setting influenced consumer perceptions of the health effects of smoking. CVS Health, the giant drugstore chain that recently merged with health insurer Aetna, stopped selling tobacco products in 2014.

“The FDA will continue to hold retailers accountable by vigorously enforcing the law,” Gottlieb said.

In December, Walgreens posted mediocre quarterly results and said it would cut costs. While prescriptions increased in its pharmacies, same-store retail sales, which include items such as shampoo and beauty products as well as tobacco, fell 3.2 percent in the U.S. Walgreens blamed the decline in part on de-emphasizing tobacco.

The FDA’s tobacco policies have been in the spotlight in recent months amid what health regulators have described as an epidemic increase in teen vaping.

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