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Senators press Walgreens to kick its nicotine habit

A week after the federal government called out Walgreens for illegally selling cigarettes to minors, five U.S. senators are calling on the pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco all together.

The company ignored the same appeal five years ago and instead chose to continue selling tobacco products, "including illegally to children," wrote five Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, where Walgreens is headquartered.

"We once again write to urge you, as a health care pharmacy, to put children over profits and immediately stop selling dangerous and addictive tobacco products at your stores," the lawmakers wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to Walgreens CEO Stefano Pessina.

The lawmakers -- who along with Durbin include Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island -- sent similar letters to Rite Aid, Walmart and Dollar General urging them to halt tobacco sales.

The letter came a week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration identified Walgreens as the top violator among pharmacies when it comes to illegally selling cigarettes to minors. More than a fifth of Walgreens stores inspected were found to be selling tobacco products to people under 18, the agency disclosed.  

Reached for comment, Walgreens did not specifically address the lawmakers' request, instead stressing the corporation's "zero tolerance policy" for selling tobacco to minors.

"We require age verification from anyone purchasing these products, regardless of age, in all of our stores nationwide," a Walgreens spokesperson said by email. "While lowering the visibility of tobacco products in certain stores, we also continue to focus efforts on promoting cessation products and services, and all of our pharmacists and technicians are trained and certified on supporting any customer wanting to quit on their terms."

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The American Pharmaceutical Association in 1970 declared cigarette displays to be at odds with the public health role of pharmacies, and recommended that drugstores stop selling tobacco the following year. Nationwide pharmacy chains ignored the advice until September 2014, when CVS Health stopped selling tobacco products at its stores.

A 2016 study suggest that the move led at least some smokers to quit. Smokers who purchased cigarettes exclusively at CVS stores were 38 percent less likely to buy tobacco after the national chain stopped selling cigarettes, according to a report in the American Journal of Public Health. Cigarette sales also dropped 1 percent -- or by 95 million packs -- in 13 states in the eight months after CVS left the tobacco market, the report found.