Local and state health officials applaud upcoming changes to Walmart's tobacco sales policies, but they would like the world's largest retailer to do more.

Walmart announced earlier this month it will phase out sales of fruit- and dessert-flavored vaping systems, which are popular among teens. And, beginning July 1, its U.S. stores — including Sam's Club — will raise the minimum age to 21 to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

"... Walmart's decision followed similar moves by major drugstore chains to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco in their stores to 21," said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. "So we're definitely seeing a positive trend."

Also, Chandler was pleased the company took the extra step to end sales of fruity flavored e-cigarettes.

But Walmart can do more, Chandler said. He hopes the giant retailer throws its weight behind Sen. Mitch McConnell's recently proposed legislation that seeks to raise the national age limit for purchasing tobacco products to 21.

Rich Nading, Green River District Health Department's tobacco control coordinator, was somewhat surprised to learn about Walmart's new tobacco policies.

"It's a step in the right direction," Nading said. "And it may be an indicator of how the national discussion will proceed."

But Nading would like to see Walmart follow CVS' lead. In 2014, that company was the first national retail pharmacy chain to quit selling tobacco products because of the negative impact on public health.

CVS reports that during the first eight months after it ended tobacco sales there was a "reduction in cigarette pack sales across all retailers in states where CVS Pharmacy had a 15% or greater share of the retail pharmacy market, compared to states with no CVS Pharmacy stores."

Smokers in those states bought fewer packs, the company reported, and there was a 4% increase in nicotine patch sales in those states.

In early April, Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accused 15 national retailers, including Walmart, of selling tobacco products to underage customers. In a letter to Walmart leadership, Gottlieb said the retailer's violation rate was about 17%.

"This violative history is disturbing and cannot possibly come as a surprise to corporate leadership," Gottlieb wrote. "... These illegal sales must stop."

He instructed Walmart to provide a written response within 30 days, outlining plans to address the illegal sales of tobacco products to minors.

In a May 8 letter, John Scudder, Walmart's U.S. chief ethics and compliance officer, responded.

Besides raising its age limit on tobacco sales and phasing out sales of some types of e-cigarettes, the retailer plans to conduct about 8,000 secret-shopper visits this year. If cashiers fail the test, they will be subject to disciplinary action, including termination, Scudder said.

In the future, Walmart will work to improve its positive reinforcement protocol for cashiers who consistently follow company policy.

The company will upgrade employee training with virtual reality technology.

"Our sincere intent and hope are that the changes outlined in this letter will have a substantial public health impact by helping to keep tobacco products out of the hands of minors," Scudder wrote.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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