A nationwide boycott against Walgreens is brewing. Here's why

The hashtag #boycottwalgreens has been growing on Twitter and TikTok

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 10, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Walgreens exterior (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Walgreens exterior (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced that the state will no longer do business with Walgreens Boots Alliance. In a tweet earlier this week, Newsom declared: "California won't be doing business with Walgreens or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women's lives at risk. We're done."

According to a press release from Newsom's office, this means the state will not be renewing its $54 million contract with the retail pharmacy. The contract is between the California Department of General Services (DGS) and Walgreens, allowing the state to "procure specialty pharmacy prescription drugs, primarily used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and its correctional health care system." Newsom gave formal notice that DGS withdrew its renewal that was set to take effect on May 1, 2023, "and will instead explore other options for furnishing the same services."

As this plays out on a state level, the hashtag #boycottwalgreens has been growing on Twitter and TikTok. "We're boycotting Walgreens," creator Chasing Oz said on TikTok. Hundreds of commenters shared they were moving their prescriptions to other pharmacies.

In his newsletter, filmmaker Michael Moore also advocated for a boycott. "Please join with me and others in a NATIONWIDE BOYCOTT OF WALGREENS," Moore said. "They must reverse their decision immediately. They must acknowledge that nearly 70% of all Americans believe this legal prescription be made easily available to all women — and that the vast majority of Americans still support Roe v Wade.

The boycott erupted after Walgreens said it will not distribute the mifepristone in dozens of states after conservative state officials threatened legal action against the retailer, as reported by Politico. "Walgreens does not intend to dispense Mifepristone within your state and does not intend to ship Mifepristone into your state from any of our pharmacies," Walgreens said to the attorney general in Kansas in a letter. "If this approach changes, we will be sure to notify you."

Medication abortions occur through the brand name drug Mifeprex. In the two-step process, a pregnant person first takes a mifepristone pill, which has been targeted by conservative legislators recently.  Either 24 to 48 hours later, a second pill containing misoprostol is taken.

"California won't be doing business with Walgreens or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women's lives at risk."

In January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated a rule on medication abortion pills which expanded access to retail pharmacies like Walgreens. Previously, the pills could only be dispensed by certified doctors, clinics or a few mail-order pharmacies. While the January update paved the way for more retail pharmacies to dispense the pills, these pharmacies would be required to complete a certification process. At the time of the news of the update, Walgreens said they had plans to get certified. "We intend to become a certified pharmacy under the program," Fraser Engerman, a spokesperson for Walgreens, told The New York Times in January. "We are working through the registration, necessary training of our pharmacists, as well as evaluating our pharmacy network in terms of where we normally dispense products that have extra FDA requirements and will dispense these consistent with federal and state laws."

The letters from Walgreens signaled that the retailer walked back its initial stance, hence the boycott. However, this week, Walgreens clarified its position saying that it will dispense the abortion pill mifepristone — but only in every state where it's legal. "We want to be very clear about what our position has always been: Walgreens plans to dispense mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so," Walgreens said in its statement. "Providing legally approved medications to patients is what pharmacies do."

Legally, Seema Mohapatra, a professor of law at SMU Dedman School of Law, told Salon, Walgreens has the right as a private business to not get certified to distribute the abortion pill in states where medication abortion can't be dispensed by pharmacists, according to state law.

"They're definitely allowed to make decisions of what they carry," Mohapatra said. "When you have a company that operates in all states and each state has its own complex rules about what constitutes abortion at what stage and how restrictive it is, these are the kinds of things that businesses are going to have to be grappling with."

"These are the kinds of things that businesses are going to have to be grappling with."

Mohapatra added she is "sympathetic" to Walgreens, as the situation speaks to how anti-abortion laws are putting providers in difficult situations.

"These are the kinds of things that we're going to be seeing play out in litigation," Mohapatra said. "It's just a question of whether Walgreens wants to be part of that litigation or not, what the Biden Administration says is that no state can restrict FDA approved drugs, but we haven't seen that play out in court."

Mohapatra said one of the biggest consequences of not getting certified in states will certainly be boycotts. Ultraviolet, a non-profit women's advocacy group based in the United States, has a petition signed by 70,000 people calling on all U.S. pharmacies to provide medication abortion to all customers.

"The overwhelming majority of American people support access to mifepristone, a drug that has been legal and deemed safe for over two decades," Shaunna Thomas co-founder of UltraViolet said in a media statement. "Now it's time for major pharmaceutical providers - like Walgreens - to put their ethical obligations above those of a radical political fringe by declaring their promise to provide patients with access to these medications."

Indeed, another consequence is even more restrictive access in states where any type of abortion is increasingly hard to obtain. If retail pharmacies like Walgreens refuse to mail medication abortion in states where it's hard to obtain, it will continue to put pregnant people in more dangerous situations.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

"For most, it's not a question of whether it's going to prevent somebody from having an abortion but whether it's going to prevent somebody from having an earlier and safer abortion," Mohapatra said. "And a lot of times that means that they're going to have extra costs with it to go to another state, it's going to be later in pregnancy where there are more risks, those are all things that could happen."

This isn't the first time Walgreens has faced a boycott. A movement started brewing in the summer of 2022 after reports surfaced that people were denied being sold contraceptives. While the FDA approved mifepristone for the medical termination of pregnancy over two decades ago, Mohapatra said it hasn't been sold in retail pharmacies for political reasons. 

"When the FDA made a change that retail pharmacies could carry this, before that, it was really for political reasons why you didn't have that done, and so that's why this is not a question of public health or safety," Mohapatra said. "This has been a healthcare issue that's been politicized."


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

MORE FROM Nicole Karlis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Fda Medication Abortion Mifeprex Mifepristone Reporting Reproductive Health Care