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Thrifty Drug to Quit Selling Adult Magazines : Publishers Say U.S. Panel May Have Sparked Recent Decisions by Retailers

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Times Staff Writer

Joining a growing number of convenience and retail store chains, Thrifty Drug said Thursday that it will no longer carry Playboy, Penthouse and Playgirl magazines in the 582 discount and drug stores that it operates in California and eight other Western states.

The Los Angeles-based operator of Thrifty and Thrifty Jr. stores said in a terse statement that its new policy was “appropriate to the communities served by Thrifty stores,” adding that the additional magazine rack space will be used to improve displays and give more space to “family-type” magazines.

Last month, Southland Corp. said it would no longer carry adult magazines in its 4,500 company-owned 7-Eleven convenience stores because of what it said was growing concern over the links between crime and pornography. The People’s Drug and Dart Drug chains had earlier made similar announcements; the Rite-Aid chain followed suit last week.

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The news came as another blow to adult-magazine publishers, which in recent years have faced financial challenges from several quarters. The magazines have been hit by competition from adult videotapes, the industrywide decline of newsstand magazine sales and weak advertising by tobacco and liquor companies.

Decision Denounced by Publishers

Thrifty Chairman Leonard H. Straus declined to elaborate on the decision.

The move was denounced by spokesmen for Playboy Enterprises and Penthouse International. They said the chains’ decisions may have been prompted by letters that were sent to a number of companies by the Justice Department’s Commission on Pornography--the so-called Meese Commission--that is studying the effect of pornography on U.S. society.

The letter, signed by Commission Executive Director Allen E. Sears, notified the chains that they had been identified in commission testimony as distributors of pornographic material.

Among those receiving such a letter were the 7-Eleven, Rite-Aid, Dart and Thrifty chains, according to the publishers. Rite-Aid has denied that the commission’s letter played a role in its decision. The other chains either declined to comment or could not be reached.

The testimony cited in the letter was given before the Meese Commission by Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the fundamentalist National Federation for Decency, which has organized boycotts and picketing of stores selling adult magazines. The letter said its purpose was to give the companies an opportunity to respond before the commission issues its final report.

Penthouse Publisher Robert Guccione has threatened to sue the Meese Commission over the letter, and Playboy officials say they plan to take a friend-of-the-court role in the suit as well.

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“To these retailers, the letter (suggests that) the Justice Department has 700 lawyers that are going to sue them every which-way,” said David Salyers, spokesman for Playboy. “The companies wouldn’t bother to announce that they’re dropping a product unless they were scared silly.”

Commission officials did not return several telephone calls from The Times on Thursday.

In an interview from his Tupelo, Miss., headquarters, Wildmon denied that the letters had any role.

“These decisions have been made by some socially conscious businessmen who are thinking about how they can better serve the interests of family values,” Wildmon said. He said he had not approached Thrifty Chairman Straus or other Thrifty officials, “but I’m sure that they’ve heard an expression of our views from members of affiliated groups.”

Officials of Ritter/Geller Communications, Santa Monica-based publisher of Playgirl, also did not return phone calls Thursday.

Penthouse and Playboy spokesmen said the retailers’ decisions do not pose a financial threat to their publications, insisting that readers will look elsewhere for the magazines. But magazine industry analysts said the chains’ moves have come amid developments that have raised questions about their long-term profitability.

Playboy magazine’s circulation has been steady for the past two years, but the magazine’s count of advertising pages declined to 894 last year from 1,364 in 1981, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Penthouse’s ad-page count declined to 490 from 783 in 1981, the newsletter said.

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“The fact is, there’s been a glut of magazines, and adult videos have really cut into our business,” said publisher Larry Flynt, whose Los Angeles-based Larry Flynt Publications puts out Hustler.

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