Grocery's free antibiotics might break state law

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The decision by the Publix supermarket chain to give away common antibiotics might violate Tennessee's Unfair Sales Law.

Baeteena Black, the executive director of the Tennessee Pharmacists Association, said she's been contacted by pharmacists worried about the practice.

"They are concerned about unfair competition in the marketplace," Black said. "If this becomes a growing trend, it could hurt independent pharmacies.

But right now, Publix has a small market penetration in Tennessee. It's having a limited impact." Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart and other chain stores have recently begun offering generic drugs at reduced prices, and Black said that Wal-Marts in Tennessee raised the prices of some of the drugs in its discount program because of the state's law.

So far, Florida-based Publix is the only store offering free drugs. The company is giving away the seven antibiotics most commonly filled at the chain's pharmacies to anyone with a prescription as often as they need them.

The drugs are most commonly used to treat ailments such as bronchitis, urinary tract infections and strep throat. Fourteen-day supplies are be available at the chain's pharmacies in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

"We are looking further into Tennessee law in connection with Publix's free antibiotic program," said Anne Hendricks, a Publix spokeswoman.

"Currently, we do not believe that the sales-at-less-than-cost statute applies to this program." The Unfair Sales Law intends to protect businesses by prohibiting their competitors from selling products below cost. But David Raybin, a constitutional lawyer in Nashville, said he agrees with Publix's interpretation of the law.

"Unless you can prove the intent to drive competition out of business, then it's probably not criminal," Raybin said. The giveaway has been praised as a way to help poor people get the antibiotics they need.

Before the new program, Hendricks said, Publix charged between $10 and $60 for the seven medications. Ferrell Haile, co-owner of Perkins Drugs in Gallatin, said the practice is hurting his business.

"I have a hard time competing against it," Haile said. "This is a marketing ploy. They have figured out if they give away some low-cost prescriptions, they will sell more out front." Information from: The Tennessean,

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)