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FDA Announces Crackdown on Walgreens, 14 Other National Retailers Selling E-Cigarettes to Kids

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday announced a renewed effort to hold retailers accountable for selling e-cigarettes to kids and teenagers, as part of its ongoing campaign against youth vaping.

E-cigarettes are not legally available to anyone younger than 18 in the U.S. Nonetheless, youth use is a prevalent issue in the U.S., with 37% of high school seniors saying they had vaped in 2018. FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has called vaping among teenagers an “epidemic,” pointing to health risks such as nicotine addiction and later use of combustible cigarettes and other tobacco products, and has been vocal about the need to keep e-cigarettes out of kids’ hands — in part by targeting retailers who fail to follow the law.

In the new announcement, Walgreens was singled out as the chief offender among pharmacy chains that sell tobacco products, with 22% of its inspected stores found to be selling tobacco products to minors — a “sheer volume of violative inspections” that Gottlieb said in the statement “cannot possibly come as a surprise to corporate leadership.” The agency has requested a meeting with Walgreens’ corporate management to discuss systemic issues that could be leading to the high rate of violations, according to the statement.

A Walgreens representative said in a statement provided to TIME that the company welcomes the opportunity to meet with Gottlieb and the FDA, and underscored its commitment to prevention.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors and any employee violating this policy is subject to immediate termination. We require age verification from anyone purchasing these products, regardless of age, in all of our stores nationwide,” the statement says. “While lowering the visibility of tobacco products in certain stores, we also continue to focus efforts on promoting cessation products and services, and all of our pharmacists and technicians are trained and certified on supporting any customer wanting to quit on their terms.”

The FDA’s statement also names 14 other national retailers with widespread issues regarding sales to minors. The FDA found violations in up to 44% of inspected locations at six gas station chains: Marathon, Exxon, Sunoco, BP, Citgo and Mobil, according to the release. Other national retailers, including Walmart and Kroger, were also named, though their violation rates were between 15 and 24% of inspected stores.

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said all Exxon and Mobil fuel stations in the U.S. are operated or supplied by independent branded wholesalers. A BP spokesperson also said its stores are run by independent marketers. TIME could not immediately reach any other company representatives for comment.

The FDA said in its statement that these retailers have been asked to detail their current policies for preventing underage tobacco product sales, as well as future plans for cutting down on illegal purchases.

In November, the FDA announced significant restrictions on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes — which are thought to be especially appealing to kids and teenagers — in retail stores such as gas stations. The agency has also fined retailers found to be selling e-cigarettes illegally, but said in the new statement that “ignoring the law and then paying associated fines and penalties should not simply be viewed as a cost of doing business. The stakes are too high for our young people and our country’s decades-long fight to reduce the morbidity and mortality that accompanies tobacco product use.”

The FDA has also attempted to curb youth use at the source by issuing warning letters to leading manufacturers, such as Juul, that make products that are especially popular among teenagers. Just before the FDA’s announcement in November, Juul announced plans to stop selling flavored pods in stores, and suspended its U.S. Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com