Walgreens touts its brand as "trusted since 1901," but government regulators are questioning the retailer's commitment to keeping cigarettes out of the hands of children.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that the drugstore chain is 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 in a news release.
The federal agency also has started enforcement actions against a Walgreens store in Miami, Florida, and a Circle K store in Charleston, South Carolina, seeking to bar both from selling tobacco products for 30 days. Both stores repeatedly violated the law by selling products including cigars and menthol cigarettes to minors, the FDA said.
"We have 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," a spokesperson for Circle K told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. "We, at Circle K, take pride in being a responsible retailer of age-restricted products and will continue to adhere to federal and local laws."
Noting that Walgreens had racked up nearly 1,800 violations for selling tobacco products to minors across the country, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a medical doctor, expressed concern that the pharmacy setting might influence consumer perceptions of tobacco products in a way that's contributing to the recent increase in students using tobacco.
"Retailers in particular -- especially those who position themselves as health-and-wellness-minded businesses -- are on the frontlines" of efforts to keep deadly and addictive tobacco products out of kids' hands, Gottlieb said in a statement.
A Walgreens spokesperson said the pharmacy chain recognizes the seriousness of the issue and would welcome meeting with the FDA chief to discuss "all of the steps we are taking," adding that "the health and well-being of our customers is our top priority."
An estimated 4.9 million middle- and high-school students reported using a tobacco product during the previous 30 days, according to preliminary results of a 2018 survey. In 2018, led to a 27 percent jump in tobacco usage among high school students and to a 7 percent increase among middle school students, reversing years of declines, according to findings by the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since 2010, the FDA has issued more than 1,550 warning letters and 240 civil money penalty actions against Walgreens stores nationwide for selling tobacco to minors, the agency said. During the same period, the FDA issued over 1,000 warning letters and 205 monetary penalties to Circle K retailers.
To put Walgreen's 22 percent violation rate in perspective, the FDA offered violation rates for other national, corporate-owned chains. Since 2010, the agency found a violation rate of 17.5 percent at Walmart, 14 percent at Dollar General stores and 9.6 percent at Rite Aid stores.
Gottlieb said he would request a meeting with Walgreen's management to discuss whether there is "a corporate-wide issue related to their stores' non-compliance." The regulatory agency is also considering additional enforcement actions to address Walgreens' record, he added.
The retailer requires identification from anyone buying cigarettes or other tobacco products at any of its 9,560 drugstores nationwide, the spokesperson emailed.