(Adds details on similar move by Walgreens, Rite Aid in April, political pressure and background on e-cigarette use)
By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - Walmart Inc said on Wednesday it will raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 across its U.S. stores starting July 1, responding to growing regulatory and political pressure to curb a surge in teenage use of e-cigarettes.
It also pushed the world's largest retailer to say it discontinue the sale of fruit-and dessert-flavored electronic nicotine delivery systems.
In March, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) put 15 national retailers, including Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Family Dollar Stores, on notice for allegedly selling tobacco products such as e-cigarettes to minors. In April, Walgreens and Rite Aid said they would raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21.
Last month, U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said he plans to introduce legislation to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products, including vaping devices, to 21 from 18.
E-cigarettes have been a bone of contention in the public health community. Some focus on the potential for the products to shift lifelong smokers onto less harmful nicotine products, while others fear they risk drawing a new generation into nicotine addiction.
The increased pressure on retailers comes at a time when states and cities across the United States have moved to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco in an effort to prevent addiction at young ages. A 2015 study from the National Academy of Medicine found that among adults who became daily smokers, about 90 percent started using cigarettes before they were 19. The study found that raising the minimum legal age to 21 would prevent 223,000 premature deaths.
So far 12 states have enacted laws to raise the minimum age to 21, including New Jersey and California. Lawmakers in New York state and Maryland have also approved legislation.
Walmart said the FDA had conducted approximately 12,800 compliance checks involving minors at Walmart stores and Sam's Club locations around the country since 2010. Over that period, Walmart stores passed 93 percent and Sam's Club cleared 99 percent of those checks.
In 2018, the Walmart stores cleared 94 percent of the 2,400 FDA checks and Sam's Club passed 100 percent of its 15 checks.
"While we have implemented a robust compliance program, we are not satisfied with falling short of our companywide goal of 100 percent compliance," John Scudder, U.S. chief ethics and compliance officer, said in a letter to the FDA.
"Even a single sale to a minor is one too many," he said.
In the letter, Walmart also assured the regulator that it would remained focused on improving its compliance rates and any sale-to-minor violation would be dealt with promptly.
Walmart said it had increased disciplinary action against store workers who failed to check ID's for shoppers who appeared to be under 40. It will also use internal and external data, including FDA data, to implement alerts, controls, training and monitoring to reduce the risk of a sale to an underage customer.
In 2019, the retailer said it would conduct 8,000 secret-shopper visits, and stores and that workers who fail the checks would be required to complete a "corrective action plan."
"Going forward ... a cashier who fails a secret-shopper check will be subjected to disciplinary action, up to and including termination," Scudder said in the letter. (Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)