Grocery Stores Woo Customers With Free Antibiotics

January 08, 2009 05:31 PM
by Cara McDonough
Supermarket chains Giant Food, Wegmans and Stop & Shop are offering prescription antibiotics free of charge, claiming it’s to help customers in tough times.

Free Antibiotics: Good for Consumers or Good for Business?

The grocery store chain Giant Food announced that it would give away free prescription antibiotics in late December, saying the decision would help consumers in tough times. But retail experts say it is an “aggressive move in supermarkets' heated battle for shoppers,” reports The Washington Post. Giant Food’s program includes several popular antibiotics, such as amoxicillin, penicillin and ciprofloxacin, and began on Jan. 2 and runs until March 21.

The food store chain already has competition. A week after Giant Food’s announcement, Wegmans food stores announced a nearly identical program that will run until March 31. Representatives said the decision has been in the works for some time and that the timing of the announcements is coincidental.

Grocery store Stop & Shop has announced that it, too, will be giving away some free antibiotics to customers with a prescription until March 21, reports Newsday.

While the free antibiotic programs at the stores may be a ploy to draw in more customers and increase business, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that prescription drugs are one of the items people are going without in the economic downturn. According to the October survey, 27 percent of people chose not to fill a prescription in an attempt to save money, compared with 23 percent six months earlier.

Representatives have not commented on why the chains are offering free antibiotics rather than other drugs, or why the program will only last three months.

Opinion and Analysis: Could free drugs send the wrong message?

Even if the move does help those with economic woes, and even if it is a good business strategy for the grocery chains, free antibiotics may not be the best public health message, some say.

While the program may be beneficial for those who truly need the drugs and cannot afford them, free antibiotics may also cause doctors to prescribe them when they aren’t needed, which could lead to antibiotic resistance, writes Michelle Andrews for the U.S. News & World Report Heath blog. “Overuse of antibiotics has led to an alarming growth in bacteria and other microbes that don't respond to the antibiotics that used to kill them.”

Furthermore, Andrews writes, most wintertime ills, such as colds and the flu, are viruses that won’t respond to antibiotics and simply need to run their course.

Jessica Berthtold of the American College of Physicians Internist blog agrees that the program might lead to over-prescription of antibiotics. “I understand that retail stores are under pressure to entice customers amid a faltering economy. But I'm not sure Wegmans and Giant are sending a great public health message by offering free generic antibiotics to patients for the next few months,” she writes.

Related Topic: Overuse of antibiotics

The overuse of antibiotics is a popular topic, particularly with the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of certain bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA.

The sometimes deadly bacterial infection started out as a problem mostly in hospitals, but has spread to the broader community. MRSA’s rise is linked to antibiotic resistance, which occurs when bacteria becomes resistant to the drugs used to treat it, leading to “superbugs.”

In September, Britain’s Health Protection Agency said that the pharmaceutical industry must develop new drugs to combat hospital superbugs due to their rapid rise. Cases of drug resistant E. coli, for example, tripled between 2000 and 2006. The agency said there is a lack of new drugs reaching the market to treat such infections.

Reference: Medication


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