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Vons won't sell tobacco without warning label

California's largest supermarket chain has begun removing cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing tobacco from shelves because the products do not have warning labels mandated by state law. Cigarettes and several brands of chewing tobacco are not involved in the action announced Tuesday by Vons Companies Inc., because they already carry a federally mandated warning label.

``It's the first time we are aware of that a supermarket has taken product off the shelves in response to Proposition 65,'' says Deputy Attorney General Craig C. Thompson, referring to a law created by a November 1986 ballot initiative.

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The law requires the state to identify products and substances that medical authorities believe cause cancer and other severe health effects. Businesses must warn the public of ``significant'' amounts of the substances.

On Friday, state Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp filed a civil lawsuit against 25 tobacco manufacturers and eight food store chains, including Vons. The suit claimed the companies failed to warn consumers of the cancer risk of certain products. But Vons spokeswoman Vickie Sanders told the Los Angeles Times that the decision to pull the products had nothing to do with the lawsuit. ``We did not do it without warning or notice to manufacturers. This is not a sudden move on Vons's part,'' she said.

Vons has 336 stores in the central and southern parts of California. It recently acquired 172 Safeway supermarkets in southern California.

Norman F. Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America and the Pipe Tobacco Council, said in a statement from Washington, D.C.: ``The warning message is, in fact, reaching the mass of cigar and pipe tobacco purchasers throughout the state. We do not think the producers' efforts, which have been timely and responsible, can be legitimately faulted.''

Tobacco manufacturers and distributors were told in August that Vons would require warning labels on products by Sept. 17, Ms. Sanders said. That deadline was later extended until Monday, she said. The tobacco industry hoped it could comply with the law by posting signs in stores and other measures short of attaching warning labels to its products.

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