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UPDATE 2-Walmart raises U.S. tobacco purchase age to 21 starting in July

Nandita Bose

(Adds details on Walmart plans)

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 a move by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to battle a surge in teenage use of e-cigarettes.

The retailer will also discontinue the sale of fruit-and dessert-flavored electronic nicotine delivery systems, it said in a letter to the agency.

In March, the 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.

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.

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, the world's largest retailer 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 would use internal and external data, including FDA data, to implement alerts, controls, training and monitoring to reduce the risk of a underage 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)