U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is fuming over “disturbingly” high rates of e-cigarette and tobacco sales at Walgreens drugstores and is demanding an unusual in-person meeting the company’s corporate leaders to discuss the problem.
According to the FDA, Walgreens is one of the top violators in the nation when it comes to selling e-cigarette and tobacco products to underage kids in violation of federal law. Dr. Gottlieb indicated in a March 4 statement that violators like Walgreens are responsible for the soaring rates of nicotine addiction among U.S. teens and children, which have reached epidemic proportions in recent years.
Dr. Gottlieb said he hopes a meeting with Walgreens executives will cast some light on what corporate-wide issues are at play in its track record of allowing children and teens to purchase e-cigarette products.
Of the more than 6,350 Walgreens stores the FDA inspected, 22 percent were found to have illegally sold vape and tobacco products to kids. The FDA noted that Walgreens stores across the country have racked up nearly 1,800 violations. And those are just the stores that were caught. It’s likely that many others escaped oversight.
“Both the rate of violations and sheer volume of violative inspections of Walgreens stores are disturbing, particularly since the company positions itself as a health-and-wellness-minded business,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “This cannot possibly come as a surprise to corporate leadership, which is why I want to sit down with them to discuss the important role they play, as a nationwide retailer, in curbing this epidemic.”
In addition to Walgreens, the FDA has identified 14 other national, corporate-owned chains and franchises with alarmingly high rates of non-compliance with federal rules governing the sale of e-cigarette and tobacco products.
These findings prompted the FDA to introduce new measures to combat e-cigarette usage among U.S. teens and children, including initiating a grass-roots movement by calling on communities, parents, and others to report violations to the FDA. The agency said it is imperative to keep vape and tobacco products out of the hands of kids, since “tobacco use is almost always initiated and established during adolescence.”
Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have already made multi-billion-dollar fortunes by hawking e-cigarettes to teens and children. E-cigarettes first hit the market as innovative devices to help adults quit smoking, but it didn’t take long for manufacturers to spot the potential in the untapped youth market, especially because the devices went unregulated for years.
San Francisco-based JUUL captured the lion’s share of the youth market with vape devices resembling USB drives that kids can hide in plain sight. The company then increased nicotine levels in its pods, made them available in a variety of candy-like flavors, and promoted the products on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms with ads that appealed to kids and young adults.
Dr. Gottlieb said that Walgreens and some of the other violators may be attempting to capitalize on the popularity of JUUL among kids by illegally selling similar products and possibly counterfeit knockoffs.
If the trends in youth e-cigarette use persist, Dr. Gottlieb said the FDA is poised to take further, stricter measures, even if that means adults who are using e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids can no longer access them.
In a previous statement, Dr. Gottlieb said that the data showing giant increases in youth e-cigarette use “shock [his] conscience.”
From 2017 to 2018, there was a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette use among high school students and a 48 percent increase among middle school students. The total number of middle and high school students currently using e-cigarettes rose to 3.6 million — 1.5 million more students than the previous year.
Additionally, nearly a third of high school e-cigarette users are using the products regularly and more than two-thirds are using flavored e-cigarette products.