Rite Aid, one of the country’s biggest pharmacy chains, will stop selling e-cigarettes and vaping products because of concern that they are fueling tobacco use among middle and high school students across the United States.
Rite Aid said Thursday that it would remove the products from its more than 2,400 stores over the next 90 days. The chain will continue to sell regular tobacco products, a decision that some public health advocates criticized.
“We’re concerned about some of the alarming statistics regarding the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products by children and teens,” Bryan Everett, the chain’s chief operating officer, said on an earnings call. He added that “while many feel these products are beneficial to those of legal age who are trying to quit the use of tobacco,” the company had decided to stop selling them because of their growing popularity with young people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the use of tobacco products, a category that includes e-cigarettes and vaping products, jumped 38 percent last year among high school students and 29 percent among middle school students. The surge, driven by the growth of e-cigarettes, countered the declining use of such products among young people in previous years, the C.D.C. found.
Public health experts warn that while teenage smoking remains at record lows, that could be reversed if vaping and e-cigarettes end up leading a new generation to traditional tobacco products.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration moved to restrict the sales of flavored e-cigarettes, which are particularly attractive to young people. The F.D.A. has directed retailers to place e-cigarette products in areas that are not accessible to people under age 18.
The agency identified Walgreens stores this year as a top violator of restrictions against selling tobacco products to minors. The F.D.A. has sought a meeting with the company’s leadership to address the problem.
Walgreens said in an emailed statement on Friday that it would “welcome the opportunity to meet with the commissioner of food and drugs to discuss all of the steps we are taking regarding this important issue.” The chain said it prohibited the sale of tobacco products to minors and immediately fired employees who violated the ban.
The F.D.A. also issued letters this month to a dozen retailers, including Walmart and Family Dollar, asking them to submit plans within 30 days that described how they planned to address and mitigate sales of tobacco products to minors. Rite Aid and Walgreens were not sent letters.
Despite the latest move by Rite Aid, public health advocates were not pleased to hear the chain would continue to sell traditional tobacco products. They said the company should follow the example set by CVS, which stopped selling tobacco altogether in 2014 and subsequently branded itself as a health care giant. CVS was the first major pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco, which had brought in $2 billion in sales a year.
“There is a fundamental conflict between their stated mission of improving health and wellness and selling tobacco products, which are the leading cause of preventable death,” said Vince Willmore, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Pharmacies cannot have it both ways. Other drugstores should follow CVS’s lead and end tobacco sales once and for all.”
Rite Aid said in a statement that many of its customers still wanted to be able to buy traditional tobacco products, but that it had decreased the visibility of those items in its stores in recent years. The company added that it had also expanded its offering of smoking cessation products and trained its pharmacists in a program that can help customers quit smoking.
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