Grocer Publix to Offer 7 Antibiotics for Free

"It's a bad idea," he said. "These drugs cost pennies to manufacture. The problem is that some people will want a prescription 'just in case.' since it's free anyway. If it's free, I believe they will be less likely to finish a course of prescribed therapy because being free, it loses its value and importance."

Antibiotics account for nearly 50 percent of the generic pediatric prescriptions filled at its stores. Publix, which has more than 900 stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, runs 684 pharmacies.

"Part of this is an economic issue," said Donn. "It's a whole lot easier in the day of managed health care to take a call from a patient and write a prescription than to bring the patient in and assess whether it's a true bacterial infection."

Resistance to bacterial infections has risen in the United States since penicillin was first widely used by the Allied forces during World War II. Some historians say the drug helped win the war effort, reducing the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds among Allied forces.

At the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s and 1950s, women commonly died of puerperal sepsis during childbirth, and doctors zealously used penicillin to treat them.

"Women were treated willy-nilly and it disappeared," said Donn. "Everybody said we cured it, but group A strep was replaced with staph. We developed a resistant penicillin, and low and behold, we got rid of staph and came up with E. coli and now group B strep."

Meijer started giving away the same antibiotic drugs as Publix plans to -- primarily drugs for strep and bronchitis -- last October. A month before, Wal-Mart started offering certain drugs for $4 per prescription in Florida. The world's largest retailer then expanded the plan across the country.

"Retail outlets often feature so-called loss leaders to lure customers into their store," said Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of political economy at Princeton University. "This happens to be the ultimate loss leader; but it fits the general pattern of loss leaders.

"There is a spillover effect … to other items in the store. That is, the surmise that if the loss leader is cheap or free, other items in the store must be cheap as well," said Reinhardt.

Picking antibiotics is a "smart move," he said, because most people don't buy them regularly. "The economic calculation by the store is that the added profits triggered by additional sales of other merchandise will more than cover the incremental cost of supplying these drugs."

Reuters contributed to this story.

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