CVS’ rollout of hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) products at stores in select states is expected to open the CBD door for other pharmacy chains. At the same time, growth of the category could be hindered by complex regulations on CBD and similar products that differ from state to state, along with consumer confusion.
CVS recently began selling topical CBD-containing products such as creams, sprays, lotions, and salves in seven states: California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee. Rival Walgreens announced on March 27th that it will sell CBD products in 1,500 locations across the U.S., including Colorado, New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont, South Caroline, Illinois, and Indiana.
“CBD is gaining popularity among consumers, particularly those looking for alternative care products,” Joseph Goode, senior director of corporate communications at CVS, tells Drug Topics. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard from our customers that these products have helped with pain relief for arthritis and other ailments, and we believe consumers will be looking for these products as part of their health offering.”
However, Goode was quick to clarify that the topical products are based on hemp, not on marijuana, and that CVS is not selling any supplements or food additives that contain CBD. Hemp is a form of cannabis plant that contains very low quantities of tetrahydracannabinol (THC).
The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill redefined “marijuana,” a controlled substance, to exclude hemp containing less than 0.3% THC. As a result, hemp and hemp-derived CBD are no longer controlled substances under federal law, Goode says.
The FDA has not as yet issued regulations on the marketing and sale of CBD-containing foods and topicals. On April 2nd, FDA Comssioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, issued a press release saying questions remain regadring the safety of widespread CBD use. Gottlieb has also expressed concern regarding the decision to sell CBD products.
The regulation of hemp-derived CBD varies by state and is often regulated by multiple agencies. For example, Alabama’s Board of Pharmacy does not agree with that state’s Attorney General’s assessment that CBD can be sold in pharmacies, Goode says, “so that complicates the sale of CBD products in our pharmacy stores [in Alabama].”
“We continue to actively monitor the regulatory landscape for CBD products and will expand product availability as appropriate and in compliance with applicable laws. State laws may be more restrictive than federal law and states can still prohibit or limit hemp,” Goode says.
CVS’s move into the sale of CBD products helps create trust among consumers and encourages other retailers to sell CBD topicals as well, Jessica Lukas, vice president of consumer insights at BDS Analytics, tells Drug Topics.
BDS Analytics estimates that the total U.S. CBD market, which includes products sold at cannabis dispensaries and via e-commerce, will reach $20 billion by 2024. Around 40% of U.S. consumers said they would explore CBD products under the right conditions, a separate new study says.
“It’s not surprising to see that topicals are the first products that retailers are carrying. They are not having to consider food products regulated by FDA. Other [drug store chains] will follow quickly and even grocery, mass, and other chains will start carrying them,” Lukas says.
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Retailers carrying CBD-containing products have an opportunity and a responsibility to educate consumers, who are extremely confused about the category. Around 70% of U.S. adults 21 years and older don’t know the difference between CBD and THC, BDS Analytics found.
In addition, around 65% of adults believe that any hemp product will provide some sort of psychoactive effect or “high.”
Pharmacy retailers carrying CBD products could suggest that shoppers talk to their pharmacist if they have questions about the products. “Even if pharmacists relay the perceived benefits, that would be helpful, given the lack of understanding,” Lukas says.
While Goode declined to list suppliers of CVS’s CBD topicals, he said the chain is working with CBD product manufacturers “that are complying with applicable laws and that meet CVS’s high standards for quality.”