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Lo-res_16660092-SFamously and as we have discussed at length previously, CVS removed all tobacco products from its shelves, in line with its sought-after positioning as a health company. Its most direct competitor Walgreens chose not to follow suit. But now Walgreens, along with a long list of convenience and gas station chains, has drawn the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which alleges that these retailers frequently and illegally sell tobacco products to children under the age of 18 years.

The FDA’s investigation involved sending undercover agents into stores to purchase conventional or electronic cigarettes. The violation rates—meaning that the children were not asked to show identification and were able to buy the restricted items—ranged from 15 to 44 percent.

Although Walgreens did not have the highest violation rate (at 22 percent), the FDA singled it out for largely the same reason that CVS offered for its strategic choice to eliminate tobacco: It presents itself as a retailer in the health care industry. Thus, the agency asserts, it should be held to a particularly high standard when it comes to keeping tobacco out of the reach of children.

Higher violation rates were posted by several gas and convenience store chains, such as Sunoco, BP, Exxon, Mobil, Marathon, and Citgo. The FDA also found relatively common violations in other retail sectors, such as by Family Dollar, Walmart, and Kroger.

These illegal sales of tobacco products occur at the store level, such that the chains must rely on salesclerks to be responsible for checking identification before selling the age-restricted items to consumers. Walgreens noted that it provides extensive training for its store employees to ensure they do so. Ultimately though, the responsibility for abiding by the law remains with the company, and the FDA asserts that the rate of violations is so high that it seems unlikely that corporate executives are unaware of the sales.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How responsible are corporate retailers for keeping tobacco products out of the hands of minors?
  2. What sort of training can they implement to ensure employees do not sell tobacco products to minors?
  3. Is it fair of the FDA to single out Walgreens, when it isn’t even the worst violator? Why or why not?


Source: Sheila Kaplan, “F.D.A. Criticizes Walgreens and Other Retailers for Selling Tobacco Products to Minors,” The New York Times, March 4, 2019