Walgreens has the worst track record among all pharmacies when it comes to selling tobacco products to minors, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Thursday.
The Deerfield, Ill.-based pharmacy chain has racked up nearly 1,800 violations since 2010 for selling tobacco products to kids, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. About 22 percent of the more than 6,300 Walgreens stores inspected since 2010 have illegally sold the products to young people, the agency said.
"I will be writing the corporate management of Walgreens and requesting a meeting with them to discuss whether there is a corporate-wide issue related to their stores' non-compliance and put them on notice that the FDA is considering additional enforcement avenues to address their record of violative tobacco sales to youth," Gottlieb said in a statement on the agency's website.
Walgreens' rate of violations is higher than not only other pharmacy chains, but a number of other large retailers as well, according to the FDA. About 17.5 percent of Walmart stores inspected since 2010 have illegally sold tobacco to minors, along with 14 percent of Dollar General stores and 9.6 percent of Rite Aid Corp. stores.
Rival pharmacy chain CVS Health stopped selling tobacco products several years ago. Walgreens has, at times, been criticized for its continued sales of the products.
Walgreens said in a statement Thursday that it takes the matter "very seriously" and has taken steps to address the issue, such as by requiring identification from anyone purchasing tobacco products, regardless of age. Walgreens is training all of its store employees and strengthening disciplinary actions against those who violate the store's policy, according to the statement.
"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 since the health and well-being of our customers is our top priority and core mission," Walgreens said.
The FDA has taken action against one Walgreens store in Miami, and a Circle K store in Charleston, S.C., filing complaints seeking to bar the two stores from selling any tobacco products for 30 days.
That action against the Miami store followed more than 1,550 warning letters and 240 civil monetary penalty actions against Walgreens stores since 2010 for selling the products to minors, according to the FDA. The complaint filed against the Miami store is the first such action taken against a Walgreens store.
For years, Walgreens has faced pushback, from various groups over its continued sales of tobacco products. Several shareholders brought up the issue at the company's most recent annual stockholder meeting Jan. 25.
At that meeting, Walgreens Boots Alliance Executive Chairman James Skinner called it a "management choice."
"We are well aware of the risk with this, but we leave it to customer choice, and if the customers choose to smoke and want to buy tobacco products in our environment, we provide that," Skinner said. "It's been our position, and we work very hard to help those that would like to stop smoking to stop smoking."
Walgreens stopped selling tobacco products at its stores in Gainesville, Fla., as part of a pilot program last year, among other efforts. Walgreens is evaluating the results of that program "to see how we can continue to reduce our reliance, in terms of offering customers choice in these products," Co-Chief Operating Officer Alex Gourlay told shareholders at the meeting.
The pilot program shows some progress, but Walgreens should stop selling tobacco products at all its stores, said Tom McCaney, with the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, which is a member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of shareholders that presses companies on social responsibility issues.
McCaney was among those who spoke against selling tobacco products at Walgreens' meeting.
"I'm so glad to see this from the FDA," McCaney said. "(Walgreens is) just not paying any attention to the moral argument that you can't be a health care company and be pushing this deadly product."
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