Walgreens Will Raise Age to 21 for Buying Tobacco Products

(Bloomberg) -- Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., facing criticism for selling tobacco products to minors, said it will lift the age for purchasing cigarettes and vaping devices to 21 in its more than 9,500 drugstores.

The move comes amid a surge in youth vaping that has alarmed public health officials. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he wants Congress to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products, including nicotine vaping devices, to 21 from 18 nationwide. Some states have already done so.

After the stock market closed on Tuesday, Rite Aid Corp. also said it would increase the age required to purchase tobacco products to 21 at its stores, effective within 90 days. The pharmacy chain had previously announced it will remove e-cigarettes and vaping products from its shelves.

Walgreens has been under particular pressure since February, when the Food and Drug Administration called it the “top violator” among pharmacy chains for selling tobacco products to minors. The chain has received more than 1,550 warning letters from the FDA and has been hit with 240 financial penalties since 2010, an agency spokesman said at the time. Its largest competitor, CVS Health Corp., stopped selling cigarettes and vaping devices in 2014.

“We’ve seen positive results from other recent efforts to strengthen our policies related to tobacco sales and believe this next step can be even more impactful to reduce its use among teens and young adults,” Richard Ashworth, Walgreens president of operations, said in a statement Tuesday.

Read more: Tobacco stocks fall after Walgreens raises purchase age to 21

Both the FDA and the U.S. surgeon general have called the recent surge in youth vaping a health epidemic. The percentage of high school-age children reporting use of e-cigarettes in the past month rose by more than 75 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to federal data.

A Walgreens spokesman said that the company is already making the changeover in Illinois, which recently raised the minimum age, and a number of other states. Elsewhere, Walgreens will be undertaking training for its store employees and updating its systems to be ready to fully implement the new company policy on Sept. 1, the spokesman said.

At least 14 states have already enacted laws raising the age to 21, affecting around 38 percent of the population, according to numbers from Altria Group Inc. The tobacco company, which sells Marlboros in the U.S. and has a stake in e-cigarette maker Juul Labs Inc., has supported raising the legal age for all tobacco products to 21. Vaping companies say their products are intended to help adults quit smoking.

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