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Supermarkets giving away free drugs

A sign at a Publix supermarket pharmacy in Miami advertises the chain's deal to free give-away of seven commonly prescribed antibiotics.

TEXT OF STORY

Doug Krizner: There's a growing trend among supermarket chains with pharmacies: Giving away free prescription medication. Matt Sepic has the story from St. Louis.


Matt Sepic: Mary K. Hoff does all of her grocery shopping at this Schnuck's store near her home in St. Louis. She also picks up prescriptions here from time to time.

Hoff says she was happy to hear Schnuck's recently started offering free supplies of commonly-prescribed drugs.

Mary K. Hoff: There are a lot of people that can't afford medication, and so any time that someone can get their medication free, I think that's a good program.

It should go without saying that blockbuster drugs, such as Ambien and Viagra, are not among the freebies -- the list is limited to a few dozen varieties of generic antibiotics.

The supermarket chain's president, Todd Schnuck, says his company wants to help young families and the elderly. But he admits business considerations also factor in.

Todd Schnuck: There's a lot of customers that come in just for the pharmacy. And so we want to try and actually bring in more, because we think it's a good business.

Schnuck's is not the first chain to do this. Last year, Wal-Mart got the ball rolling with its $4 prescriptions. And then regional stores, including Publix in Florida and Meijer in Michigan and Ohio, started giving away free drugs.

However, supermarket research analyst David Livingston says this is not a move that will turn the grocery business on its ear.

David Livingston: It's not a significant event in the industry. I would compare it to giving a free sucker out at the counter to a child.

There's not a giant plastic bowl of antibiotics at the checkout -- you still have to have a doctor's prescription. But Livingston says common drugs, such as penicillin and amoxicillin, are so cheap, offering them free may actually save the company money.

Schnuck's would not put a price tag on the giveaway, however Livingston points out its not worth a pharmacist's time to process insurance paperwork or even ring up the sale on such drugs.

Livingston: It's actually probably more cost-effective to give them away for free, considering a pharmacist is making excess of $100,000 per year.

That, he says, and not competition from Wal-Mart, is the real reason for this mini-trend. And the PR value doesn't hurt either.

In St. Louis, I'm Matt Sepic for Marketplace.

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