Walmart will stop selling e-cigarettes at its U.S. stores, the company said Friday, as vaping-related deaths and illnesses are rising across the country.
The retailer attributed its decision to “growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity and uncertainty regarding e-cigarettes” and said it would sell through its existing inventory before exiting the market altogether. Walmart, which has 5,000 U.S. locations, is the country’s largest retailer.
The company will also stop selling all related devices and accessories, including cartridges and pods. A Walmart spokeswoman said vaping products were a “relatively small category overall” for the company, and that it expects to sell through related merchandise in the next few months.
The announcement comes months after Walmart phased out the sale of fruit- and dessert-flavored e-cigarettes at its stores and raised the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21.
At least eight people have died so far from vaping-related illnesses in the United States, and health officials say they believe there have been more than 500 reports of lung illnesses related to e-cigarette use. The Trump administration said last week that it plans to ban nearly all flavored vaping products on the market.
E-cigarettes have ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry. The products, which are typically marketed as a way to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, have gained popularity among teenagers. After years of steady decline, the number of middle and high school students using tobacco products increased between 2017 and 2018, largely because of the growing popularity of e-cigarettes. More than 20 percent of high school students said they used e-cigarettes last year, up from 12 percent the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The e-cigarette industry was quick to strike back against Walmart’s decision. The largest players in the market include Juul Labs, a San Francisco-based company that sold more than $1 billion worth of vaping products last year, and R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company’s Vuse.
“The fact that Walmart is reducing access for adult smokers to regulated vapor products while continuing to sell combustible cigarettes is irresponsible,” Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, said in a statement.
This is the second time this month Walmart has taken a stand on a hot-button issue. On Sept. 3, the retailer said it would stop selling ammunition for military-style weapons and would no longer allow customers to openly carry firearms in stores. A number of major chains, including Kroger and Walgreens, followed with similar announcements.
Retail experts say they’re expecting a similar domino effect this time around. Walmart, which has $514 billion in annual sales, is often a bellwether for the industry.
“The vaping crisis has become so significant that Walmart is stepping out to take a stand,” said Wendy Patrick, a lecturer on business ethics at San Diego State University. “There is no doubt that other companies are watching closely.”
Earlier on Friday, U.S. senators including Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) urged the Food and Drug Administration to “immediately remove” all cartridge-based e-cigarettes from the market.
“Make no mistake: none of the e-cigarettes, including cartridge based e-cigarettes, currently on the market have gone through the FDA approval process,” they wrote in a letter to federal regulators. “They are hooking our children on nicotine at alarming rates.”