WASHINGTON: Walmart said on Friday that it would stop selling e-cigarettes at its stores in the United States, dealing a new blow to the vaping industry as concerns mount over the health risks of the products and their soaring popularity among teenagers.
“Given the growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity and uncertainty regarding e-cigarettes, we plan to discontinue the sale of electronic nicotine delivery products,” the retailer said in a statement on Friday.
The decision by Walmart comes amid a drumbeat of new reports about the potential health risks of vaping that has made parents, doctors and government officials increasingly wary of the products, which are marketed as smoking-cessation devices.
Vaping products account for only a small portion of Walmart’s revenue, but e-cigarette shoppers tend to be younger and more loyal customers who shop regularly and often buy other items when they come to replenish their vaping supplies.
“The e-cigarette shopper is a very important shopper for Walmart,’’ said Burt Flickinger, a managing director of the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.
Walmart is not the first major retailer to halt sales of e-cigarettes. Rite Aid, one of the country’s biggest pharmacy chains, said in April that it would stop selling vaping supplies, and in August, Dollar General, one of the fastest-growing retailers in rural parts of the country, also pulled the products from its stores. And Costco pulled all e-cigarette products from its shelves about two weeks ago, the company said.
One of Walmart’s largest competitors, Target, has never sold vaping devices and took cigarettes off its shelves in 1996.
But as the largest retailer in the country, Walmart often sets an example for others in the industry. The company’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, is the chairman of the Business Roundtable, the lobbying organization for the country’s business leaders.
“Walmart is certainly very influential in terms of what it does with particular products,” said Craig Johnson, who runs a retail research and consulting firm. “I’m not sure everyone will follow in Walmart’s lead, but everybody will look at it, and some will follow.”
On Friday, the trade group representing convenience stores was unmoved by Walmart’s announcement. The National Association of Convenience Stores has not advised its members, which include 150,000 stores in the United States, about how to handle recent concerns surrounding the safety of vaping products.
“We are not scientists,’’ said Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations at the trade group. “We are retailers. Our job is to sell legal products responsibly.”
In recent weeks, concerns about the health risks of vaping have prompted government investigations, warnings from medical groups and mounting consumer panic.
On Thursday, medical authorities said that the number of vaping-related lung illnesses had risen to 530 probable cases, and a Missouri man became the eighth person to die from the mysterious ailments. Public health officials have said that many of the people who became sick were vaping THC, the ingredient in marijuana that induces a high, although some people have reported getting ill from vaping nicotine through e-cigarettes, too.
But no single product or ingredient has been identified as the cause of the illnesses, and health experts say there may be multiple devices or ingredients involved. Investigations are underway by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and state health departments.
Much of the concern about vaping has focused on its increasing prevalence among teenagers. This week, the National Institute on Drug Abuse released survey results that underscored that growing popularity: Since 2017, the prevalence of vaping in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades has more than doubled, researchers at the University of Michigan found.
Retailers are not the only ones taking note. This week, CNN, CBS and Viacom said they would stop airing advertisements by e-cigarette companies on their networks, citing recent public health warnings.
And a campaign finance report filed on Friday by the political action committee of Juul Labs, the most popular e-cigarette company in the country, showed that several of its political donations were returned last month. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Democrat of Nevada, gave Juul back $5,000, while the campaign committee for the Illinois attorney general, Kwame Raoul, returned $3,000, and VoteVets, an organization that works on issues affecting military veterans, sent back $2,500.
Joshua Raffel, a spokesman for Juul Labs, which makes the most popular e-cigarette product in the country, declined to comment on Walmart’s announcement, but the company has in the past said it strongly agreed “with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products.”
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, which owns 35 percent of Juul, said the company respected a “retailer’s right to determine what products they want to sell.” A spokeswoman for Reynolds American, which makes the VUSE e-cigarette, said the decision was disappointing.
“It is important to many adult tobacco consumers that they shop with retailers they trust when looking for alternatives to cigarettes,” said the spokeswoman, Kaelan Hollon.
Walmart plans to keep selling e-cigarettes until it exhausts its current inventory, which could last until January. A company spokesman said the retailer would continue to sell traditional cigarettes.
Tony Abboud, the executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, a lobbying group for the e-cigarette industry, said it was a mistake for Walmart to reduce access to vaping products while keeping cigarettes on store shelves.
“This will drive former adult smokers to purchase more cigarettes,” Mr. Abboud said. “Science has demonstrated that vaping as a substitute for smoking saves lives.”
Over the years, Walmart has come under pressure to stop selling cigarettes. And earlier this year, the retailer raised the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21.
Matthew L. Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called Walmart’s decision to stop e-cigarette sales “a responsible step.” But he urged the company to go further by ending sales of all tobacco products, including cigarettes.
Walmart’s decision to pull e-cigarettes from its stores is the second time in a month that it has halted sales of a product that was causing concerns for consumers and politicians. In the wake of the shooting at one of its own stores in El Paso, Walmart said it would no longer sell ammunition that could be used in military-style assault rifles.
At the same time, the retailer discouraged its customers from openly carrying guns in its stores. Within days, a number of other major retailers, including Kroger, CVS and Wegmans, had followed suit.