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Why Is Retail Giant Target Trying to Scan Your Driver's License for This Seemingly Simple Purchase?


"...could be used against me during a health insurance claim or background investigation."

Editor's note: We have received a response from Target clarifying why it would swipe IDs for the purchase of smoking cessation products that contain nicotine. See our update with their response at the end of this post. 


A person appearing younger than 18 years old might expect to be carded for age-restricted items like tobacco purchases. Americans might even be accustomed to having to produce their driver's license or some form of government-issued I.D. to purchase decongestants or other medications containing pseudoephedrine. But what about Nicotine patches? And why is only one popular retailer asking for more than just your ID when you're trying to buy them?

A person named Rodney was doing neither of these things. Still, when he was at Target purchasing nicotine patches, the store clerk asked to scan his ID, giving Rodney pause and eventually leading him to take his business elsewhere.

According to the Consumerist, he was purchasing nicotine patches for his son. Although the FDA sets 18 as the minimum age to purchase smoking cessation products, the fact that he claims to be a father (and later states his age at 57) suggests this restriction would not be a problem.

A Target store near Royersford, Pa. (Photo: AP/George Widman)

In a letter to the Consumerist, Rodney shared details of what happened:

My son, who is trying cast off the vile tobacco habit, called to ask me to pick up a box of nicotine patches that he is using to eases his craving. Since I would do nearly anything to help him quit smoking I tossed a box of the patches in my shopping cart.

At the checkout, the nice lady (really!) asked me for my driver’s license. Assuming that she wanted to verify my age (Wow – being carded at 57) I showed it to her. She then said that she needed to scan the stripe. I declined and told her that I’ve proven my identity and my age and I would prefer to NOT have them record my details.


She then called over a manager who appeared to have gotten her makeup tips from RuPaul to override the register by inputting my date of birth. The manager then informed me that it was the law to scan my license. Before I could complete my rebuttal, she changed her story that it was store policy whereupon she snatched up the box of patches and left the checkout. The clerk was obviously horrified and mouthed an “I’m sorry” to me. I simply smiled and told her that Target could keep everything else, too.

Nicotine patch (Photo: Wikimedia)

This isn't the first account where such an instance has happened at Target over nicotine patches either.

Rodney went on to explain that when he purchased the patches at a Wal-Mart afterward, the cashier simply had to verify the purchaser was 18 years or older (Rodney wasn't carded but said his gray hair might have been a clue).

Ultimately, Rodney said that he "[didn't] want to risk winding up on some database of smokers."

"I have no way of knowing how this could be used against me during a health insurance claim or background investigation."

As Rodney pointed out, Target has been in the spotlight recently for its extensive data mining abilities to direct marketing to its customers, which could be exactly why the store wanted to scan his ID in the first place. An article in the New York Times by Charles Duhigg, highlighting a portion of his book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business," showed how Target is able to tell if a woman is pregnant, based on its purchase-tracking capabilities, before even she knows. Duhigg wrote:

For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

This could be the case. We tried going through the process of purchasing a smoking cessation product online through Target. Although the company did have us confirm by clicking a button that we were over the age of 18, it would be able to collect any information it wanted of us (address, etc.) based on the shipping and billing information we would input to complete the transaction.

There is also the potential that scanning of the ID is required based on the fact that nicotine is an age-restricted product. Some stores in states where IDs are scannable use them to confirm age instead of typing in the birth date manually. This is not to say that a store would not have the option to type in the birth date manually though.

Rodney says his stand against providing his ID might have been "pig-headed," but Consumerist pointed out that his concerns might not be too far off:

The Wall Street Journal reported not long ago that health insurers are quietly buying spending data on their customers, the same information that marketers collect, in order to look at spending habits and make predictions of future health care costs for employers.

There has also been concern of grocery store loyalty cards being used to glean similar information as well.

Update: TheBlaze contacted Target to receive clarification on its practice of ID swiping to purchase products containing nicotine. A company spokesperson assured us that an ID is swiped because the product is age restricted. Outside of verifying the age, no other information is collected. She assured us Target does not collect information from such ID swipes for marketing or other purposes.

"Scanning IDs is intended to create a more convenient experience for our guests by making the verification process faster and more accurate, while protecting our guests’ privacy and identity," the spokesperson said in an email.

Purchasing other products that would require a similar age-verification card swipe include alcohol, regulated cold medicine, some inhalants, some video games and any other age- or medicinally-regulated items.

"When swiping a guest’s ID, Target only retains the data that is relevant to the type of transaction. For example, if a guest purchases alcohol, their date of birth is the only information obtained. As previously mentioned, information obtained during the ID swipe is not used for any other purposes."

The spokesperson said those who do not want their cards swiped -- or those without barcodes on IDs -- can have their birth date entered manually. The clerk would need a supervisor to overrule the system to allow the number to be inputted manually though.



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