FDA warnings to retailers selling cigarettes to under-18s

The federal health regulators have lashed out at some 1,200 retailers for unlawfully selling cigarettes and other tobacco products to children under 18.

The Food and Drug Administration said inspectors had made 27,500 undercover checks, many of which involved sending minors to stores to buy cigarettes. The undercover operations resulted in hundreds of warning letters to retailers. The retailers include Walgreen, CVS and Rite Aid.

Spokesmen for CVS Caremark Corp and Rite Aid Corp said the companies regretted that their policies were not followed. Rite Aid promised it was taking action at the seven stores that received warning letters, including retraining all the staff, the company spokesman said. CVS took appropriate actions to correct problems at its six stores and since the FDA's inspection program began, CVS spokesman said, the retailer has had a success rate of more than 98 percent. Walgreen Co was not immediately available for comment reported Reuters.

The FDA received broad authority over tobacco manufacturing and sales from the Tobacco Control Act of 2009. One of the provisions allows the agency to contract with states to inspect spots where youths could buy cigarettes or chewable tobacco. The law requires store workers to check identification of anybody who appears younger than 27. Retail inspections check for compliance with important provisions of the law, including requirements for age and ID verification when selling tobacco products, labeling and advertising requirements, restrictions on the sale of single cigarettes, a ban on candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes, and prohibitions on tobacco self-service display and vending machines.

In this latest development the FDA posted the warning letters online on Thursday alongside a vast searchable database of all conducted compliance checks. The letters allow retailers to correct their mistakes without fines. Repeat offenders could face fines or loss of ability to sell tobacco.

“We applaud the efforts made by many retail establishments to protect our kids, but ... it's 1,200 too many” stores that allowed minors to buy tobacco products, Ann Simoneau with FDA's Center for Tobacco Products told reporters on a press call. “We've seen violations across the board, in all kinds of establishments,” she said when asked whether FDA targeted any specific types of stores.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Every day, some 3,450 Americans between 12 and 17 years old try their first cigarette, and about 850 youths become daily smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The public education, compliance checks and warning letters are good for a start. What will be critical is that FDA act aggressively on repeat offenders,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama, who has struggled to kick a long-standing smoking habit, was “committed to protecting children from cigarettes” and to stop youngsters from ever smoking. The FDA letters followed “an aggressive inspection campaign and remind retailers of their legal responsibility to protect our children” under 18, he added.

“Most retail store owners follow the law and don't sell cigarettes to kids, but we're reminding those who don't that they have a responsibility to follow the law and that there are serious consequences if they fail to do so,” Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on the official White House blog. She added that “keeping tobacco out of the hands of minors can have a huge impact on our nation's health now and in the future,” noting that 20 percent of US high school students smoke. “We know our campaign against tobacco is a 'winnable battle,'” she said.

This comes just days after a federal judge blocked the Obama administration's bid to place graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, ruling the move would violate the US Constitution's free speech protections. Hinting at an appeal of the court decision, Carney said, “We are confident that Big Tobacco's attempts to stop these warnings from going forward will ultimately fail.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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