U.S. Markets closed

FDA Asks 12 Companies to Mitigate Sale of Tobacco to Underage Users

A box of cigarettes. Photo by Shutterstock.com.

A box of cigarettes. Photo by Shutterstock.com.

The Food and Drug Administration issued letters to 12 companies earlier this month claiming their stores have sold tobacco products to minors and asking them to find ways to mitigate the sale of tobacco to underage consumers.

The letters, dated April 5, were sent to Walmart, Sunoco, Shell, Marathon Petroleum Corp., The Kroger Co., Family Dollar Stores Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., CITGO Petroleum Corp., Chevron Corp., 7-Eleven Inc., BP PLC and Casey’s General Stores Inc. Each letter was signed by former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

The letters were sent to the companies because they were found to have high rates of “violative inspections.” According to the letters, more than 15 percent of the companies’ stores inspected have been found to sell tobacco to minors. Walmart was found to have a violation rate of 17 percent, while Citgo had a violation rate of 35 percent.

“This violative history is disturbing and cannot possibly come as a surprise to corporate leadership,” Gottlieb wrote in the letters.

Bryan Haynes, a partner at Troutman Sanders in Richmond, Virginia, said any company that received this kind of letter should take the warning seriously.

“I would advise any company that have some record of sales to minors that they respond to an inquiry like this,” Haynes said. “I think most companies want to make sure that tobacco products don’t get into the hands of minors.”

He said it is “tough and easy” to implement the kind of policies that would satisfy the FDA.

“It’s easy in the sense that you have to make sure you’re identifying purchasers and reading their IDs correctly,” Haynes said. “It’s difficult in the sense that you’re dealing with human beings who are store clerks and who don’t always follow all of the rules.”

Haynes said two reasonable solutions companies can put in place include making sure every person who buys tobacco products shows identification—no matter how old they look—or implement identification scanners.

“That way when you do scan the ID, you eliminate the possibility that someone could read the identification correctly,” Haynes said.

Haynes also said companies should start implementing their own secret shopper programs to see if employees are carding patrons rather than learning from the FDA.

In the letters, Gottlieb wrote that companies should not view paying associated fines and penalties as the “cost of doing business.” Gottlieb hoped the companies look at the “substantial public health impact” they can make by preventing the sale of tobacco products to minors.

Haynes, however, said some of the solutions the FDA has recommended in the past to curb the sale of tobacco products to minors go too far. Those recommendations include barring minors from stores or sections of stores where tobacco is sold or to not sell products deemed attractive to minors.

“I just can’t imagine that anyone does that,” Haynes said. “It is one thing for tobacco specialty stores to have someone posted at the door to check IDs. But that would be completely unworkable for a place like Walgreens or a convenience store.”