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April 12, 2019
3 min to read

Bizarro World: Gottlieb Questions Rite Aid’s Decision to Drop Vapes

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Jim McDonald

Pharmacy chain Rite Aid will stop selling vaping products, but continue to sell cigarettes. The bizarre decision was announced Thursday on a conference call with financial analysts.

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb weighed in on Twitter, shocking vapers by questioning the Rite Aid decision. “Huh? Rite Aid nixes lower risk e-cigs but sticks with combustibles?” asked the ex-FDA boss without irony.

Gottlieb was last seen announcing an FDA “investigation” into 35 reports of seizures supposedly caused by vaping over the last 10 years. Now the man who walked away from the FDA after energetically throwing fuel on the dumpster fire of public opinion has decided to defend e-cigarettes?

In his recent communications at FDA, Gottlieb always referred to vapes as “potentially” lower-risk products than combustible tobacco. As pointed out by researcher Chris Russell, Gottlieb never definitively referred to vapes as “lower risk” as he does in this tweet. The “new Gottlieb” earned himself a lot of snarky (and deserved) responses from vapers.

The man who called the vaping moral panic an epidemic once had a financial stake in a vaping company, but certainly has no friends left in the vape world now — and there’s probably nothing he could say to change that. His Twitter comment is especially bizarre considering that one of his final acts at the FDA was to announce rules that will prevent flavored e-liquid vape products from being sold in retail outlets that allow underage customers.

"While many feel [e-cigarettes] are beneficial to those of legal age who are trying to quit the use of tobacco, we have made the decision to remove all electronic cigarettes and vaping products from our offering at all Rite Aid stores," Rite Aid’s chief operating officer Bryan Everett said, according to CNBC.


Tobacco control and the drugstore wars

The decision follows a coordinated campaign by tobacco control organizations to pressure drugstore chain Walgreens to stop selling cigarettes. Walgreens is the largest competitor to industry leader CVS Health, which is a major funder of tobacco control. CVS stopped selling cigarettes in 2014, and has parlayed the moral capital it received from anti-tobacco organizations to create smoking cessation programs and promote private-brand nicotine replacement therapy products in its stores.

But rival Walgreens has continued to sell tobacco products (and e-cigarettes), giving it a competitive advantage CVS would like to eliminate. Selling tobacco products makes money for Walgreens, but also brings in customers who use their insurance coverage to buy prescriptions at Walgreens pharmacies. CVS doesn’t like losing customers who want to buy tobacco and prescription drugs in the same location. They have so far ignored the smaller Rite Aid chain, although the company’s weird decision to eliminate vapes but sell cigarettes may earn some attention from tobacco control.


Tobacco control groups like Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Truth Initiative have led the pressure campaign to force Walgreens to end tobacco (and vape) sales, with social media posts and even a petition drive promoted to their email lists.

With nearly 10,000 stores in all 50 states, Walgreens makes vape products available—like vape pens, e-liquids, vape tanks, and pod mods—to customers in many neighborhoods and rural areas that aren’t served by vape shops or other retailers that sell vapes. Last week, CASAA issued an open letter to Walgreens, thanking the company for selling low-risk nicotine products, and urging it to continue serving the market for tobacco harm reduction products.

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Jim McDonald

Vaping since: 12 years

Favorite products:

Favorite flavors: RY4-style tobaccos, fruits

Expertise in: Political and legal challenges, tobacco control haters, moral panics

Jim McDonald

Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy

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