* Compliance checks lead to 1,200 warning letters
* FDA has new expanded regulatory authority over tobacco
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) - U.S. health regulators have hit more than 1,200 retailers, including Walgreen, CVS and Rite Aid, with warnings this year for unlawfully selling cigarettes and other tobacco products to children under 18.
The Food and Drug Administration said inspectors had made 27,500 undercover checks, many of which involved sending minors to stores to buy cigarettes.
The undercover operations resulted in hundreds of warning letters to retailers.
A CVS Caremark Corp spokesman said the company regretted that its policies were not followed, adding that it took appropriate actions to correct problems at the six stores that did not pass their inspections.
Since the FDA’s inspection program began, he said, CVS has had a success rate of more than 98 percent.
Walgreen Co and Rite Aid Corp were not immediately available for comment.
The FDA received broad authority over tobacco manufacturing and sales from the Tobacco Control Act of 2009. One of the provisions allows the agency to contract with states to inspect spots where youths could buy cigarettes or chewable tobacco.
The law requires store workers to check identification of anybody who appears younger than 27.
The FDA posted the warning letters online on Thursday alongside a vast searchable database of all conducted compliance checks. The letters allow retailers to correct their mistakes without fines. Repeat offenders could face fines or loss of ability to sell tobacco.
“We applaud the efforts made by many retail establishments to protect our kids, but... it’s 1,200 too many” stores that have allowed minors to buy tobacco products, Ann Simoneau with the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products told reporters in a press conference.
Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. Every day, some 3,450 Americans between 12 and 17 years old try their first cigarette, and about 850 youths become daily smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
FDA officials said they are on a mission to begin battling the stubbornly high U.S. smoking rates by keeping tobacco out of underage hands in the first place.
Earlier this year, the agency released nine new graphic images they are requiring tobacco companies to place prominently on cigarette packs and advertising.
Several companies, led by Reynolds American Inc’s R.J. Reynolds unit, balked at the new labels, which depict diseased lungs, dead bodies and rotting teeth.
They sued the FDA for breaching their First Amendment rights. On Monday, a federal judge blocked the rule and granted a temporary injunction.