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Which drug stores sell tobacco to minors? A new paper investigates

Scientists review the compliance of pharmacies and tobacco-selling policies, finding that Walgreens is the most likely to sell to minors.

If you were a minor looking for tobacco between 2012 and 2017, you'd have the best luck at Walgreens, according to a new study out in JAMA Pediatrics.

The paper digs into the rates at which large chain pharmacies in the United States violated laws against selling tobacco to minors. The analysis was based on six years of the Food and Drug Administration data.

The research was led by Lisa Henriksen, PhD, senior research scientist in the Stanford Prevention Research Center; Joseph Lee, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Education and Promotion at East Carolina University; Nina Schleicher, PhD, in the Stanford Prevention Research Center; and Eric Leas, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in Henriksen's lab.

"There's been a lot of interest in pharmacy sales of tobacco products generally," said Lee. "We have a responsibility to keep teens from getting addicted to tobacco products, and it's important to see if pharmacies, which should be selling health, are taking that responsibility seriously."

Back in 2012, about 7 percent of youths who smoked tobacco said that they waltzed right into a pharmacy and bought a pack for themselves. Among other factors, it was one of the statistics that prompted the FDA to set up an operation to see just how lenient pharmacies were being with teens and tobacco.

Federal law sets the minimum age to buy tobacco at 18, although states and localities can increase the age, as California and others have done.

In FDA's compliance check program, teens between the age of 16 and 17 worked with an FDA inspector and made attempts to purchase tobacco products from retailers across the country. The researchers compared results from these inspections at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and other independent pharmacies.

In the study, more than 23,000 attempts to purchase tobacco products were made at pharmacies. The results showed that minors were able to purchase tobacco products successfully about 8 percent of the time, across all pharmacies. Although when broken down by pharmacy, Rite Aid sold to minors about 4 percent of the time, while Walgreens sold to minors the most -- about 10 percent of the time, on average.

Leas and Lee say that they hope pharmacies will take this data and use it as an opportunity to improve. "Ideally, this research will call attention to some of the differences between the companies and encourage all pharmacies to focus more attention on their responsibility to not sell tobacco to teens," said Lee.

Walgreens offered a statement in response to the study, which is included in a Reuters article: "The health and wellbeing of our customers is our top priority and core mission. We take this matter very seriously and have taken a number of steps over the past several years to help address the important issue of tobacco sales to minors. To further strengthen our practices, going forward, we will be requiring identification for anyone purchasing tobacco products regardless of age in all of our stores nationwide by early October. As part of this measure, we also will be training all our store team members on the new requirements and install signs in our stores to help explain the change to our customers."

Back in 2014, CVS stopped selling tobacco products following in the footsteps of many smaller pharmacies. While that might not be an option that the other national chain pharmacies want to carry out, Leas agrees that Walgreens, for example, could adopt some of the policy practices of other drug stores to help decrease its violations.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie

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