March 4 (UPI) -- The Food and Drug Administration on Monday announced plans to hold 15 national retailers accountable for having a "disturbingly high" number of violations for selling tobacco products to minors.
The agency said it asked the gas stations, drug stores and grocery stores to share with officials their plans for preventing youth tobacco sales in the future. The FDA also said it's considering additional enforcement options to bring down the rate of violations.
"Ignoring the law and then paying associated fines and penalties should not simply be viewed as a cost of doing business," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. "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."
Of the inspected stores, each had violation rates between 15 percent and 44 percent. Among the worst offenders were gas station chains Marathon, Exxon, Sunoco, BP, Citgo and Mobil with a 35 percent to 44 percent violation rate.
At 25 percent to 34 percent were Shell, Chevron, Casey's General Stores and 7-Eleven. Family Dollar, Kroger, Walgreens, Circle K and Walmart had violation rates between 15 percent and 24 percent.
The FDA drew particular attention to the Walgreens drugstore chain, with which it sought a meeting to discuss its track record of selling tobacco products to minors. Twenty-two percent of the company's more than 6,350 stores illegally sold tobacco products to children, the highest violation rate among drug stores.
"Both the rate of violations and sheer volume of violative inspections of Walgreens stores are disturbing, particularly since the company positions itself as a health-and-wellness-minded business," Gottlieb said. "This cannot possibly come as a surprise to corporate leadership, which is why I want to sit down with them to discuss the important role they play, as a nationwide retailer, in curbing this epidemic."
Walgreens said it welcomes the chance to meet FDA officials regarding the issue.
"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," the company said in a statement emailed to UPI. "We require age verification from anyone purchasing these products, regardless of age, in all of our stores nationwide."
Additionally, the FDA said it sent letters to more than 40 companies that produce e-cigarette products the agency said are being marketed outside its compliance policy. The agency said these companies may be attempting to capitalize on the popularity of e-cigarettes like Juul, which came under fire from the FDA last year for targeting minors.
The FDA said it also sent warning letters to several other companies for selling electronic nicotine delivery systems or water pipe tobacco products without the required nicotine warning statement.